Friday, August 31, 2012


1. I am not in Chicago for the Worldcon. I may be in Chicago in six months, but not now.

2. I did not watch the Republican convention. I usually do, but I've given up on them.

3. Pandora is broken, and we are having her repaired. (Pandora is the cat.) This involves new food, bags of fluid with needles, and rubbing stuff on her ears. She will love this, I'm sure.

4. The mean kids have made it clear that they don't want me around to play. I didn't like being picked on by the mean kids in childhood, and I like it no better now, so I'm not going to annoy them with my presence any longer.

5. That may be one reason why I don't miss being in Chicago. It may also be why I've spent much time this week on a comforting statistical project.

6. In cheerier news, Dittmer's has re-opened. Dittmer's is the local deli that closed after a small fire in January. Of last year. After many the altered estimated date, and several the location change, it's back, and so are those chicken-and-cheese sausages. Ym.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong

It's actually a pleasure to turn from more stressful matters and consider the end of a noble life. Neil Armstrong was one of the more reluctant celebrities of our time, in terms of capitalizing on or making a fuss from his fame, but he wasn't neurotic about it, either. He just lived quietly in Cincinnati in retirement, teaching engineering in college for a while, and served on the Challenger investigation committee. Unlike his crewmates on Apollo 11, he didn't write a memoir.

NASA's official policy regarding crew selection in the Moon program years (and perhaps today, though I don't know) was that all the astronauts were fully qualified, and any of them could do any job that an astronaut would be called on to do. Nevertheless, particular astronauts were picked for particular assignments, and accounts have confirmed that factors like relative qualifications and crew compatibility did play a role. Armstrong turned out to be a good choice for the commander of the first lunar mission. He was, shall we say, more stable than a few of his fellows, and less of a goofball than some others. (Can you imagine what it would have been like if Eagle had had to abort the landing - which it almost did; Armstrong had trouble finding a space clear enough of boulders to land in - and Pete Conrad on Apollo 12 had been the first man on the moon? This is the guy whose words from the lunar surface were, "Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small [step] for Neil, but it's a long one for me.") It is possible to bask in celebrity and still be respectable about it - John Glenn managed - but Armstrong's way may have been best for his specific position.

Yes, I watched the lunar landing, and Armstrong and Aldrin's walkabout, on TV. I did so more because I knew it was a historic event, unprecedented and sure to be remembered, than because I really wanted to see it. (And I had trouble making out the famous words.) I was supportive of the space program, but I didn't follow it with obsession or in detail. It was less captivating than it now sounds. I have to remind people who only know the lunar landing program from the recent movies and TV dramatizations that the real thing had much poorer video, everything took a lot longer to happen, and there was no stirring music behind it. That makes a difference. These were engineering test flights, really, and the patriotic symbolism sat a bit uneasily atop them. That, I'm sure, was Armstrong's view.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


is the title of a movie without any characters named Margaret in it; the name is the subject of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins read aloud by Matthew Broderick, who plays the heroine's rather uninspiring and incompetent high-school English teacher.

And Matt Damon plays her math teacher, but this is not the sort of movie you'd expect from those names. It's a dark, serious drama with a clear plot arc but no pat simplicities of plot and above all no neat bow of "and it all comes out right" tied around its conclusive ending.

Anna Paquin, who carries almost the whole movie heroically on her strong shoulders, plays a 17-year-old girl named Lisa who witnesses a horrific motor vehicle accident for which she feels partly responsible; the victim dies in her arms. The movie basically traces how this experience almost disintegrates her life.

It's very much a woman-oriented movie, I thought. The principal characters are all women - Lisa's relationships with her mother and with another adult women she meets in the course of the story are the main interactions in the movie - and you'd run out of fingers and perhaps toes counting all the conversations which pass the Bechdel Test. The men in this movie exist primarily to look at the women, and for the women to wonder, a bit nervously, what they're thinking. The viewpoint is from the women being looked at, and this concentration on how they feel contrasts rather refreshingly with so many movies about men looking at women from the viewpoint of the male gaze, in which it's the insides of women's heads that's terra incognita.

Lisa does some strange and rather precipitate things in the course of the story, but I found her thought processes in the main thread of events to be compelling. Several times she gets into heated arguments - mostly but not all with other women (including classmates); though she can be mercurial with her mother, her attitude towards adult men is usually cautious and respectful - and I identified with her poignantly, because ignoring her overheated temper and focusing entirely on the content of what she was saying, even when I disagreed with her on substantive issues, I found her position justifiable, while the other party frequently misrepresented and abused her in ways I found eerily familiar. I'd be interested in others' takes on this.

(However, in an argument between a male student and the English teacher over the meaning of a line from Shakespeare, I thought they were both wrong, and I blame the teacher for not finding what seemed to me the obvious resolution of the dispute, and instead dumping the Argument from Authority over the student's head.)

I first read about the movie in this article describing how it was filmed seven years ago and has been held up ever since by editing problems and lawsuits, until a version finally made it out to DVD a couple weeks ago. That came in connection with another article citing the movie's opera scenes (characters go to the NYC Opera at Lincoln Center twice) as proof that Hollywood is killing opera, which Lisa Irontongue thought a strange charge since nobody has seen the movie.

So I reported in Lisa's comments that I've now seen it, and its depiction of opera is hardly fairly characterized by the NYT's citation of the teenager's question, "Why are you going to the opera?" Her mother replies she's not a big opera fan either, but she's been invited and maybe she'll go and learn something. She finds Norma beautiful (we get about one full minute of one aria) but the patrons pretentious, mostly because they use the correct Italian forms of "bravi" and "brava" when appropriate. Her date gently informs her that there's nothing pretentious about using words you know correctly, and that's that.

I can't say much about the place in the story of the later appearance of the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman (shown at much greater length) without summarizing and giving away too much of the plot, except that it's the very final scene and the emotional catharsis of the movie, and this time the characters are driven literally to tears by its beauty.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Assyrian food, what?

Last time I went down to San Jose for an ethnic festival in a church parking lot, it was to the annual Greek festival in the Rosegarden. This time it was to an Assyrian festival in Willow Glen. Assyrian, I knew, is the designation that most of the small Christian community in the upper Mesopotamian area (and its diaspora, of course) has for itself, though whether they actually have a better claim of descending from the ancient Assyrians than any other folks in that area, I have no idea. Judging from their t-shirts and the art for sale at the festival, they do eagerly claim those ancient kings with the pleated beards as part of their ethnic heritage, and they have a cool alphabet which they write some latter-day form of Aramaic in.

I go to these ethnic festivals mostly for the food, so how was it? Some of it was general Middle Eastern - kabobs and hummus and tabouli - and some of it was Greek - dolmas - and some of it was shared with Slavic - piroshki and baklava. This last is less strange than it sounds, because the piroshki has filtered into Central Asia so long as the Russians have been there, and the Russians actually got baklava from the Turks in the first place.

The best thing I tried, however, had no precedence that I know of, and no meat, either. It was a thick soup of beans and spinach with noodles. With a little sour cream on top it was just right. And I brought home a small container - and "small" was enough - of a yellowish rice pudding that, when you put a spoonful in your mouth, causes your brain to scream, "Saffron!!!" (And not the one from Firefly.) Well, it is yellowish for a reason.

All this while, the music was loudly playing, and it may have been in Aramaic, but it sounded indistinguishable from Arabic pop to me.

I browsed the few sales booths, which at least weren't the same folks you see at all the art and wine festivals. But I didn't buy anything. The trinket boxes in intricate real-world shapes looked well-made, but a little gaudy. The earrings were more drop-hanging than B. would like. And while a t-shirt in Aramaic might have been cool, I'd have no idea what it said, and if I'd asked, I'm not sure whether I'd a) be confident in its accuracy, or b) remember it.

Uh, unless it was "He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of ..." That I'd have bought. He must have died while printing it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

another attempt at explaining the same ...

Generally I avoid getting caught up in discussions on Making Light, but I did in the one on fanfic, and it perhaps inevitably led to my #132 in that thread, yet another attempt to explain how Peter Jackson got Tolkien wrong. I was rather pleased with how this one came out, so I'm going to re-post it over here. Footnotes are addd for this post, and are not in the original.


... I have to interject that your opinion that Peter Jackson's love for The Lord of the Rings shines through is not universally shared, and in fact is categorically denied by most of the Tolkien scholars I know (and I know all the top names in the field). A minority of them hold that he managed to make a good and respectful movie on balance anyway,1 or that at least its bringing readers to the book excuses its lapses;2 but most won't even grant that much.3 They're not the only people who love Tolkien, but perhaps they can be said to understand Tolkien's own work a little better than J. Random Reader.4

The objection is not to the extent of the changes so much as their character, and the reasons for making them. Jackson seems to relish orcs but merely tolerate elves, whereas for Tolkien it was entirely the other way around.5 (Tolkien's elvish scenes shimmer with beauty, and his orcs are little better than caricatures,6 while Jackson's elves are rather lame.) That's a huge aesthetic difference there. The other is various character changes, particularly but not only in Aragorn and Faramir, which Jackson and his co-authors made - and they say this very clearly in the commentary - because they did not understand why Tolkien's characters behaved as they did.7 To consider with understanding and then change is one thing, but to change because the book baffled you is quite another. (These are just summary: I'm sparing much detail and examples.)

Jackson may think he loves LOTR, but his love is like that of a man who keeps giving the woman he loves presents that she hates, because he thinks they're what she ought to want. If he misunderstands her so badly, can he be said to love her at all, and not just a false image of her in his head?8

Getting to the point about fanfic, though, I felt an additional frustration at scenes like Pippin and Merry being scamps at Bilbo's party. In one sense it's a reasonable addition; it's likely they did do things like that at that age, and such a speculative addition is, as a concept, worthy of the best fanfic.9 The problem is that the actual scene is written like rather bad fanfic. If it actually were fanfic, in some xeroxed zine or buried in some giant web archive, it would amuse inoffensively and then be forgotten. But enshrined in the definitive movie adaptation, backed by millions in production and promotion, it grates rather more, do you see?


1. John D. Rateliff.
2. Tom Shippey, Mike Foster.
3. Including me. But I'm trying to express the other opinions fairly.
4. I'm trying to avoid the Argument from Authority here - "They're Tolkien scholars, they must be right" - but I'm also trying to avoid the Argument from Anti-Authority - "Whadda they know, a zillion fans can't be wrong." We are not few in number, and our views are not a weird fringe, but deserve at least as much respect as anyone else's.
5. In Tolkien on Film I expressed this point somewhat differently: "The book smells of elves; the movies reek of orcs." That line really offended some people. The above is how I put it when I'm trying to be nonconfrontational instead.
6. See, I'm not entirely uncritical of Tolkien.
7. Jackson's lack of faith in Tolkien's characters is his most striking characteristic. The particular moment I'm most thinking of, of course, is the one where Jackson's Faramir tries to send the Ring to his father. Jackson's commentary says, specifically, that if the Ring is so alluring then it makes no sense for Faramir to be immune to it. That's misunderstanding on an epic scale. Faramir knows it's alluring, so he keeps the heck out of its way. He says so himself on Tolkien's page: "I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee." It seems to me that a whole series of powerful characters, from Gandalf on, refusing to touch a weapon that could win the war says more about its danger than any number of them falling for it would. How can Jackson not get this? Look: how do we know that the Reavers on Firefly are the meanest and most dangerous thing out there? Because when their name first comes up, both Zoe and Jayne say they're terrified of them. Zoe and Jayne are tough badass warriors, so if they're scared, then I'm scared. The Ring won't hurt you the way Reavers would, but it will turn you into something like a Reaver, and that's scary enough.
8. I'm kind of pleased with this metaphor, and wonder why I didn't think of it earlier.
9. See, I'm not unappreciative of the creative impulse behind fanfic.

Monday, August 13, 2012

final days at Menlo

Still no Mythcon report from me, but at least I finished up the Menlo festival, which ran to a close over this last weekend.

After getting back from Mythcon, I attended one lone Prelude concert on Tuesday, featuring Faure's Violin Sonata, Op. 13, which I wasn't all that interested in, despite its being supposedly the model for Cesar Franck's Violin Sonata, which judging from this hearing it wasn't, much; and Brahms' String Sextet, Op. 36, which interested me very much. But it wasn't a really satisfying performance. Sonority and ensemble were estimable, but except for a sudden breakout of vigor in the scherzo trio, the flow and structure were a snooze.

Much as I could probably have gotten out of the subsequent days' master classes on works that would undoubtably show up in full on the weekend programs I was attending, I was partly too busy but mostly too tired to attend any. Nor did I get much chance to listen to the unusual works on the program I'd be reviewing, so I came in quite cold to the Chausson Concert, Op. 21. I never much cared for Chausson. Until now. This is a marvelous work, dark - almost Russian - in its emotion and expressivity, and listening after the concert to the borrowed recordings I ought to have been listening to before it have only increased its impact. Here, have a touch of the most beautiful part.

It was a good concert, and the music was excellent, but whoever chose to include in the writeups for Chausson and Moszkowski words like "spirited" or "celebratory" or "rousing" was on meth or something. Here's what I thought.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

slow news day

Well, the publicity side of my work as the new co-editor of Tolkien Studies has gotten off to a thundering start. While I was waiting for our contact person at the publisher to get back from a two-week vacation to tell me when issue 9 was coming out and when it would be OK with them to announce its contents, the enterprising Jason Fisher hacked on to Project Muse, the online distributor, found the contents and posted them.

That was a week and a half ago, and I was waiting ...

Anyway, everyone's back at work now, and I guess I have nothing to add except this news: that the printed copies are going out to subscribers next week.

Friday, August 10, 2012

how to succeed in birthday presents

We're back from Mythcon, and have in fact been back for several days, but a combination of trying to get my sleep back and trying to get over the overwhelmingness of it all have prevented posting about it - so far. Meanwhile, it's been B's birthday, and I finally succeeded in baking a sugar-free chocolate cake (sweetened with maltitol, which is a sugar alcohol, and sugar alcohols don't count, resulting in a net carb count about one-third that of your ordinary cake), and for a birthday present I was sure she'd enjoy but that wouldn't take up any space on our overcrowded shelves, we attended a performance by a fine local musical theatre of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It's on for the rest of this weekend, so locals can still see it.

The work with perhaps the Least Likely to Succeed Title in the history of successful musicals, this 1961 show with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser has been considered problematic in recent decades because of its supposedly crude depiction of sexism in the 1961 workplace. In fact, though, even the titles of songs like "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm" and "A Secretary Is Not A Toy" show at least an ironic awareness of the difficulties women faced, and the increasing distance of time and the popularity of retro depictions like Mad Men (insert obligatory note here that Robert Morse, the senior partner in Mad Men, was the original Finch, the ladder-climbing protagonist of How to Succeed) have helped turn How to Succeed into a period piece, which is how it's been played recently.

Musically it's cherishable, and I think it's Loesser's best show, at least equal in quality to Guys and Dolls and far better than The Most Happy Fella, a show whose appeal somewhat eludes me. I like a musical with tunes I can actually remember, and here are links to recordings, from the recent Broadway production with Daniel Radcliffe, of my two favorite songs from the show to prove it, "The Company Way" and "Brotherhood of Man".

To do this show properly requires a large cast, and this production had no problem filling all the roles adequately, featuring a Finch who looked like a cross between Ed Harris and Paul Rubens; an ingenue Rosemary (the heroine) resembling a tall Mary Tyler Moore; an excellent Smitty (heroine's best friend) who entirely avoided the grating; a Bud Frump (the antagonist) very much channeling Charles Nelson Reilly, who originated the part; and, for Mr Biggley (the company president), a big walrusy guy who in offstage life is a children's librarian known as Walter the Giant Storyteller.

But however good they and the other cast members were, the real stars of the show were the vividly sharp period costumes and the staging and choreography, which were consistently engaging and imaginative. I particularly liked the staging of "Been A Long Day", which was set inside an increasingly crowded elevator, its door in the back of the set, the other three walls invisible, the singers facing backwards (i.e. towards the audience) while the other riders faced forwards (i.e. showing us their backs), other cast members unobtrusively hoisting Smitty up so that she could peer over Finch and Rosemary's shoulders while commenting on their relationship.

Anyway, good show, marred only by the amazing amount of construction detritus currently going on at the Foothill campus, and preceded by a stop in downtown Los Altos for a quite satisfactory dinner at Bella Vita (I had a pasta alla pescatore with more fish than shellfish and only one piece of calamari in the whole dish) and a visit to Linden Tree, still the only children's bookshop I know in the US with a sizable stock of Enid Blyton, an author usually unknown over here. Many other selections of authors both old and new were good, but I have to wonder at the presence of only the new authorized sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and not the original, and at a Tolkien shelf containing only The Book of Lost Tales and The Return of the King. What?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal is one of the few authors appearing in the transitive title game in which it's the author's name, not a word in the book title, that changes case to make the joke. And since he chose his own first name (he was born Eugene Jr.), it's his own fault.

One of his obituaries notes something I'd read before, that Michelle Bachmann was so disgusted by Vidal's novel Burr that she relabeled herself from Democrat to Republican in response. That is not Vidal's fault. I was pretty disgusted by Burr myself - I found it a slimy, libelous book on dead people who can't answer back - but I didn't blame the entire Democratic party or left-wing politics for it and I didn't jump into the opposite camp's even worse flaws.

In general I agreed with a lot of what Vidal said but considered the way he said it to be almost uniformly counter-productive. (That includes what he said about Wm F. Buckley.) Consequently I mostly tried to ignore him. As an actor in the movie Bob Roberts, playing the liberal Senator opposed for re-election by the underhanded Roberts, Vidal did well early on, but by the end of the movie, director-star Tim Robbins had permitted it to turn into the "Gore Vidal Pontificates" Show, and it lost interest.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

movie colonization

is what I call it when people start attributing to the book things that were only in the movie. Oz is full of this. Here's an example, a background paragraph from an article about a local theater group that does a stage adaptation of The Princess Bride:

Though "The Princess Bride" began life as William Goldman's 1973 novel about a grandfather telling his sick grandson a story involving, to quote Goldman, "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles," most people know it from Rob Reiner's 1987 movie adaptation.
And apparently you're one of them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

the religious services page

I spent last night and part of this morning using the many resources of the web to undertake one of my more delicate tasks for Mythcon this weekend: compiling a list of local religious services.

It's been customary at Mythcons for one or another enthusiastic Protestant to lead a "mere Christian" non-denominational service in some quiet corner on Sunday morning. The problem is that, though the authors we celebrate in the Mythopoeic Society were Christian, the Society itself is emphatically non-sectarian and neutral on religious issues, so it gets up some people's noses if we list it in the program book. It looks as if we're sponsoring it.

So here's what we do. First, we ask our Scholar Guest of Honor, who happens to be a Jesuit priest, if he'll conduct a mass. I know offhand of four seriously practicing Catholics who'll attend Mythcon - I've driven most of them to masses off-site from Mythcons in various cities in past years, as I am 1) geographically enabled, 2) usually in possession of a car, 3) married to one of the Catholics - and they'll go (if they wake up in time, because this is going to be early).

Second, we list these two events, not in the program book, but on a separate sheet to be included in the membership packet.

Third, we fill out the sheet with a list of religious services off-site. I volunteer to compile this. Our chairman (active in his Presbyterian church, and a big fan of the Jesuit's scholarship) tells me to be as inclusive and wide-ranging as possible. Include the Buddhists, he says.

Oh boy, do I. Berkeley is a thriving religious city. By the time I'm done, I have four varieties of Buddhist, two Hindu, one Muslim (yes, there's a mosque in Berkeley: it's only three blocks away from our site), five Jewish (including both my own variety and one I wouldn't walk into on a bet), and an uncountable number (all right, 26) and variety of Christians, including such outliers as the Mormons and the Quakers as well as the 7th-day Adventists and the Christian Scientists. I don't even know what all these things are. What does "Methodist Episcopal" mean, anyway? Is it Methodist or is it Episcopal? It doesn't matter; we also have both Methodist and Episcopal each straight-up. And every one of these is within the city limits, though I've been selective: usually only one per denomination, and focusing on those nearby.

Some of these churches have straightforward web sites. Others list everything except the time of their services. Some don't have services. The Buddhist temple (that's a fifth Buddhist group) and the campus Hillel (sixth Jewish) are closed for the summer. One church's website has been hijacked by Russian spammers; I don't list it. The LDS is highly centralized: individual stakes don't have their own websites, and though you can get a list of temples on the Church's main website, because they're tourist attractions, you have to get an account and sign in to access the list of stakes. I get its information from a general online church directory instead.

And if all this riot of variety gets up the noses of any devouts who favor listing religious services so long as it's not, you know, Those People, then so be it.