Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the annual year-end post

And then I wrote ...

36 published concert reviews - by far my most ever - for my two professional outlets, plus one CD review and 5 preview articles. One book review and one drama review for Mythprint.

One big research article, still in press, on Tolkien and his contemporaries, for A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien forthcoming from Wiley Blackwell. Completed from beginning to end in a month; I'm not sure how I did that. I've seen the copy-edited version, and they haven't screwed it up.

And what occupied the rest of the time not blogging: co-editing Tolkien Studies, volume 10, and compiling its bibliography.

Looking over the blog, I see lots of book and movie reviews as well as additional concert reviews, several obituaries, and my biggest blog project of the year, five installments of "The Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of" (index on the last post). I have at least two more of these in mind, but first I need time to re-listen closely to do them justice.

And then I went ...

Here's the annual list of cities I stayed overnight in when not at home:

Bedford Park, IL
Valparaiso, IN
Glendora, CA
Solvang, CA
Napa, CA
Williams, CA
Portland, OR
Trout Lake, WA
Madras, OR
La Pine, OR
Yreka, CA
Ann Arbor, MI
East Lansing, MI
South Bend, IN
Seaside, CA

(One state visited without staying in it: Ohio, where during one busy afternoon in Toledo I researched my most popular post of the year.)

These trips included my first-ever overnight stay for a pair of concert reviews, as well as two public Tolkien/Inklings conferences, both conferences in the same part of the Midwest, as a result of which I was able to visit South Bend twice in the same year, six months apart, once with snow on it and once without. Since I don't live in snow country, this is the first time in many years I've had that contrast in close proximity.

Apart from those conferences, however, this is probably the first year since I started attending science-fiction conventions 37 years ago that I did not go to a single one, either at home or away, and since I'm not likely to travel out of town to any again in the future, that leaves me more space to fill with Tolkien conferences.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

actually love

I come home from seeing the stage musical of Little Women to find this debate going on in Andrew Sullivan's blog over the movie Love Actually: here and here, best in that order. (Sullivan is erratic about dropping pieces behind a paywall, so I hope you can see them.)

Some people think the movie is the most romantic ever, a real tribute to the forms and varieties of love; others find it repulsive and even nasty. I only saw the movie once, when it was new: I enjoyed it, but mostly because I'm a sucker for intricate, interweaving storylines. But though I didn't loathe it, I certainly didn't find it an affecting depiction of love in any sense.*

And, after reading those posts and thinking about them, I realized: People who love Little Women speak of it with the same kind of cherishing passion that the defenders of Love Actually have for that movie. But while there are certainly people who find Little Women merely dull or boring, so far as I know it doesn't generate polarizing detestation as Love Actually does.

As for me, I can't claim to be a true devotee of Little Women. Despite the number of times I've seen its movies, I'd half forgotten the story and couldn't even have named all the sisters offhand. But Little Women does for me exactly what Love Actually tries but fails to do. The movies and stage show of Little Women really do make me cry, whereas I had no feeling for the characters of Love Actually at all. Little Women really is all about love, in all its forms and varieties. Romantic love plays a major part, yes, but the real center of the story is in sisterly love and parental love. There's also generous helpings of true friendship, neighborly love, charitable love, love of one's work, even love of country (in the men going off to war and the women's home ec projects undertaken to support the war effort, all done from a sense of deep moral obligation). That's quite a lot, and it's all stirred together.

Whereas Love Actually - well, it says it's about all kinds of love, and it does cover familial love and friendship, though not very affectingly - but the vast majority of it is romantic love. And it seems to spend most of its time defining romantic love as "sexual lust for someone you hardly know." And it shows people in the grip of this passion betraying romantic commitments they've already made - if that bond means so little to you, what will this new one mean? - and betraying friendship and family as well, undercutting any point that the other threads of the story are trying to make. One of the movie's defenders admires it for showing that people in love will do stupid things. But that's not all that they do. And the stories, though they're intertwined in the narration, don't really intersect each other, and they don't hang together. The Prime Minister finds his political courage because he's in lust for the tea girl? What? There's nothing organic about this; it doesn't flow or follow. Everything in Little Women is completely organic, even in the abbreviated movies. And that's why the one affects me and the other doesn't.

*There is one place where Love Actually is affecting. One writer in Sullivan's blog says "I defy anyone not to be moved [by] the last minute or so, where the filmmakers simply show real people meeting loved ones at the airport." I agree. And you know why that's moving? Because it is real people really showing the warmth of love. It shows up the rest of the movie as the artificial construct that it is, that even fine actors can't overcome. I felt the same way about Schindler's List. I spent most of that movie seething at the cold, crafty (in the worst sense), artificial manipulativeness of Spielberg's storytelling. Then comes the closing scene where the real survivors pass by and place stones on the real Schindler's grave. That was moving.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Littler Women

There's something particularly appealing about Little Women. I've only read the book once - I found it a bit long and diffuse - but I've seen all three of the major movie adaptations more often than that. The 1994 version with Winona Ryder in particular seems to me to distill the distinctive essence of the story - a particular combination of the tearfully sad and the toasty warm, unreplicated in this mixture or to this intensity by any other work I know - and so, it turns out, does the 2005 stage musical, at least in the current production by Theatre Works Silicon Valley, which we attended this afternoon.

Requiring even more condensation than a movie, the musical reads like a series of pit stops at highlights of the plot. Important ensemble characters are entirely omitted, and so are critical plot points (the course of Laurie's courtship of Amy is skipped over, and why Jo accepts Prof. Bhaer's proposal after having rejected Laurie's is left unexplained). But, as this is a story of mood and character more than plot, the emotional heft of the songs carries the show. None, with the possible exception of the "Off to Massachusetts" number that Beth and Mr. Laurence sing at the piano together, are close to memorable tunes, but all bear the freight. From Marmee's "Here Alone," in the form of composing a letter to her absent husband near the beginning, on, that warm sad flavor was there at full strength.

The sets and staging, including the appearance of characters from Jo's melodrama fiction (played by the rest of the cast in makeup), were solid and were carried out smoothly, and the acting and singing were all-around excellent. Special points to Matt Dengler as Laurie, who has real stage presence and who, with the help of the abbreviated, somewhat whitewashed script treatment of his character, turned him into a strong, vibrant figure.

Even more points, then, to Emily Koch as Jo. This was the Jo I have always wanted to see. Winona Ryder and Katherine Hepburn are all very well, but this Jo convinced me that, were she around today, she'd be writing fan-fiction stories on the Internet. Big and slightly gauche, with a sitcom frankness of expression dominated by the hard "r" in her accent, she was completely convincing in her depiction of a woman aching for a freedom of action that her times were determined to deny her. Childishly pouting in her early attempts to placate Aunt Marsh (Elizabeth Palmer, an American edition of a dead ringer for Judi Dench), engagingly overenthusiastic while describing her stories, shocked and torn by the vicissitudes of life, even her sisters' engagements, she seemed slightly Aspergerian and more than a little fannish.

This production did not get wildly enthusiastic reviews, but count this as a big thumb up from me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I see live people

This is rare and notable for us.

1. Sunday, carol-singing party. By general agreement, we skip "The Little Drummer Boy." You know, I actually like "The Little Drummer Boy." Turning to non-carol songs, I may also be only living person who likes "It's a Small World."

2. Tuesday, without B. but with my visiting brother for a day visiting Salinas and Monterey. Lunch at favorite charbroiled chicken place in the Salinas barrio. Quick trip through Steinbeck museum, where I've been before, on late-entry discount because they're closing early for Christmas eve. Monterey: coastal view, used bookstore that's still open (both in the sense that it's Christmas Eve and that, hey, there's still a bookstore), dinner on the wharf and the discovery that the candy store there carries chocolate-covered gummy bears, which I'd wondered if I'd ever see again: something else I like that nobody else can stand.

3. Wednesday, Christmas dinner at B's brother's. Very small gathering, but the newborn granddaughter and her parents make an unexpected appearance. Rotisserie rather than the usual smoked turkey; hence extremely tender. Annual dispute, this one over, May employers enforce their religious scruples on their employees' health care plans? I note how these days "religious freedom" often means "enforcing your religious beliefs on other people."

4. Thursday, Boxing Day open house party. Apartment has the shape and ambiance of a very large warehouse storage unit with a loft. Technically it's a one-bedroom flat, but it's unlike anything by that description you've ever seen. Residents have filled it with books, gadgetry, and - above all - cats, so it's most welcoming.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


The bad news is that the SF Chronicle has put Jon Carroll behind a paywall.

The good news is that I've figured out how to get around it. (A privilege I exercise very sparingly, I assure you, and if they'd institute a per-article reading fee, and if it were something reasonable, like under $1, instead of the $3.95 you typically see, I wouldn't even do that.)

The bad news is that he's off for the week and didn't do a Christmas quiz this year anyway.

So no day-after commentary on it from me.

This has been the not-a-post for the day. Thank you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

American regional dialects test

I took this twice. I noticed some of the vocabulary questions are ones to which my answers would differ depending on circumstances: when I answered them according to what I might say now (e.g. puma), I got assigned to a general west/northwest geography, which is where I've lived most of my life, but when I answered them according to what I learned as a child (e.g. mountain lion), I got pegged quite specifically to eastern Wisconsin and western Michigan, which is precisely the ambit of where my mother grew up.

There's nothing in the quiz to account for this, but a few of my usages are actually British, deriving from time I've spent there. I tend to say roundabout rather than, as most Americans do, traffic circle. (Technically they're different things: traffic circles, which are controlled by stoplights, are more common in the US, and roundabouts, which aren't, are more common in the UK.) And, if I didn't make out what you said and wish you to repeat it, instead of saying Excuse me? I'm more likely to say Sorry?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

unutterably cool

A video reconstructing exactly what the Apollo 8 astronauts saw as they hit Earthrise for the first time and took that famous photo.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Geography quiz.

I got about 30 of these, depending on definition.

Unless they correct it, the answer to No. 46 is wrong. Presume you don't know how far New England extends, or have never seen a map of it.

Update: They changed, not the answer, but the question, from "New England" to "New York", but it still isn't either good or accurate.

Friday, December 20, 2013

and ... a cat

The thing about folk music - which, for present purposes, may be defined as "what people with guitars sang in Greenwich Village clubs in the early 60s" - is that it's the only type of music that I enjoy listening to irrespective of its quality. This is part of what I liked about the movie A Mighty Wind. I enjoyed the songs, even though it was part of the movie's point that none of the songs were really any good.

Now we have Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers movie set in the heyday of the same folksinging milieu. Without the appeal of the music, I might not have found it very rewarding watching. Musically, though, it's a treat. There's at least half a dozen songs heard in full or nearly in full, as well as fragments of several others. Llewyn Davis's tragedy is that he's not a particularly outstanding or successful folk singer, but he's good enough - certainly better than the characters in A Mighty Wind - and I enjoyed listening to him and the avatars of the likes of Tom Paxton, Peter Paul & Mary, and the Clancy Brothers who also get a musical say in this film.

Here's a clip of perhaps the least typical song in it. Llewyn gets an emergency request from his friend Jim Berkey to perform as a substitute in a recording session of a novelty song at a big-name label, so he goes in and this is what he gets. Here's Oscar Isaac as Llewyn [think Dave Van Ronk] ("Look, I'm happy for the gig, but who ... who wrote this?"), Justin Timberlake (!) as Jim [think Jim Glover or Paul Clayton] ("I did"), and Adam Driver as Al Cody [think Ramblin' Jack Elliott] ("Uh-oh!") in "Please Mr. Kennedy", Take One:

Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Inside Llewyn Davis, it's also dark. This is a bleak movie without much plot. Llewyn wanders around, sleeping on the couches of long-suffering friends and people he just met, trying and failing to get his career running, not quite good enough to get the magic, but it's evident that his bad or hasty decisions are making much, though not all, of his own bad luck. He's a burden on everyone who knows him, but only the two women closest to him seem seriously exasperated by him. They're both grumpy and caustic throughout the movie, termagants enough to raise suspicions of authorial misogyny. If you're sensitive to that, this might not be the movie for you.

Or you might read it as funny. There's a lot of dark humor in this movie, as much as in many previous Coen brothers movies. The humor mixes with the bleakness rather as in Fargo, but is far more successful at coming out because Inside Llewyn Davis lacks Fargo's element of horror. I could not laugh at Fargo, and shudder at the idea of anyone doing so, but this one provokes a wry smile at least. Unlike the previous Coen musical film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, this one is not stylized in its storytelling, but entirely naturalistic, though it also has its striking pieces of symbolism.

And ... a cat.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saving Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins first taught me the harm that a movie adaptation can do to a book, and the hollowness and meaninglessness of saying that "the book is still on the shelf."

I was seven when the Disney movie was released. It might be the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I loved it. It was bright, witty, and warm-hearted, and the songs were terrific.

Not too long afterwards, my mother, for whom the first two books, Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, had been childhood favorites, gave me copies as a present.

I didn't like them at all, though I didn't tell my mother that. The reason is that they were entirely different from the movie. Yes, yes, London, Banks family, mysterious nanny, magical adventures. But that's just plot. It was the spirit of the story that was different, which gave me an unpleasant feeling of "What is this? This isn't the Mary Poppins I know." Because what I knew was the movie.

The basic difference is that Disney had decided that a spoonful of sugar would make the medicine go down. The movie was sweet where the books are sour. Book-Mary is much stricter and more distant than Movie-Mary; yet, oddly, the children are much more devoted to her. Reading the books after the movie was like taking a swig of what you think is orange juice and getting grapefruit juice instead, and offering them to a kid who liked the movie was like serving meat loaf made from another recipe instead of the one he knows and likes, both unpleasant experiences I'd actually had.

You may be thinking, but movies and books are always different. Well, this is how I learned that. I was seven, remember. What I also learned is that you set your standards by what you know. If you know the movie, your standard will be the movie, and it's the book you have to try to assimilate. Whether you'd have liked the book better or not if that was what you knew first, you'll never know and it doesn't matter.

Here's somebody in spring 2001 trying to explain that about The Lord of the Rings.

In the case of Mary Poppins, it wasn't until some 15 years later, when I was taking a college class in children's literature and revisiting other childhood reads, some of which were favorites I thought I'd outgrown, that I re-read the books and was able better to appreciate them for what they were - because, after so long, the movie's impact had faded from my mind. It no longer stood in the way.

They're still not favorites of mine, though. Would I have liked them better if I'd read them before the movie? I liked the other books of her childhood that my mother gave me, in particular the Pooh books, which, thank the Lord, I read before Disney poured several heaping spoonfuls of sugar all over them.

I don't know, but I might have. I suspect that P.L. Travers was thinking of me, and children like me, when she bristled so at the changes Disney made to her characters and her tale. She knew that it doesn't matter if the book is on the shelf, if the movie is in the head. It doesn't matter how good the movie is - in fact, the better the movie as a movie, the more harm it can do - if it doesn't replicate the spirit of the book.

This is why I was so eager to see the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, which I did on Saturday. I wanted to see what the Disney people would do to that story. In the new movie, Travers gets some of her innings in - much of this was taken from audio tapes of the actual scripting sessions - but, whether she did so in real life or not, in the movie she never gets to explain why this is so important.

Instead, Saving Mr. Banks is a "curmudgeon redeemed" story. The closest parallel I know is Billy Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night. Like it, Saving Mr. Banks is shot through with flashbacks attempting to explain how the curmudgeon got that way. Unfortunately, as P.L. Travers was a real person, and real people are not that simple, the movie never gets the causes and the effects to line up, despite heavily rewriting both from history. The flashbacks become a kind of giant non-sequitur that feels as if it's about somebody else. (And Colin Farrell as her father is playing Wastrel 101.)

Movie-Travers grouses and whines for the sake of setting herself up as a curmudgeon. Eventually, she's wooed under the spell of the Disney version by the songs, as apparently she was in reality - and why not, they're great songs - and Saving Mr. Banks ends with her attending the premiere. She laughs, she cries, she kisses her book goodbye.

That's not what happened in reality. Travers was furious. Disney had outwitted her and made changes where he'd let her think she had control. She realized she'd been right to resist, and swore never to allow it again, and that is why Mary Poppins remained a one-off and never became a Disney franchise.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Disney's final selling point to Travers comes when Tom Hanks looks Emma Thompson straight in the eye and promises that he will make a movie that viewers will love and cherish as much as her books. That's right. That's exactly what he did.

But because he either did not, or would not, understand the spirit of the books he was adapting, he co-opted them, he ruined them, he replaced them with his own spoonful of sugar. And the books lost readers like me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

city and concert review

Being sent up to the City as a late fill-in reviewer for a concert on Saturday evening, I decided to make a day of it, since up there is also the only place around here that Saving Mr. Banks is playing at the moment, and I wanted to see it that much.

Well, I saw the movie and got to the concert - more on the movie later; here's the concert review - but making a day of it was a mistake.

It's just before Christmas. It was Saturday. The streets were packed. The movie house was perched on the top floor of a gigantic five (or six, if you count the below-ground level) story shopping mall in the middle of downtown. High-rise hell. For dinner, I meandered my way through the crowds and finally managed to get to Tropisueño a couple blocks away, which I'd been meaning to try for some time. The food was good, but neither it nor the decor and atmosphere were really to my taste, and my discomfort was increased by the number of friendly employees who stopped to ask what book I was reading. Probably they were curious because it's unlikely that any customer had ever previously tried to read a book after nightfall in Tropisueño's dimly-lit, tightly-squeezed, heavily-social interior. Although I'm not at ease with such queries from strangers, they were being perfectly genial about it, so I talked with them on the subject, but the fact that the book was a history of the Warren Commission investigation rejoicing in the title A Cruel and Shocking Act didn't increase the festive joy of the conversations.

Then I had to trudge uphill to the church where the concert was being held. 1111 O'Farrell, the address given was. That's at the corner of Franklin St. 1111 O'Farrell turned out to be a locked building, with a sign on the glass door instructing postal deliverers to take mail for that address around to the other side of the building. So I trudged way around to the other side. Also locked. Behind it all was a further complex of buildings evidently also belonging to the church, but it was dark by now and it took some searching before I finally located the actual church, where the people hosting the concert - this is not some lowly ticket-taker, but people actually in charge - didn't feel it was their responsibility to have given better directions or put up signs, or to have clued in the custodian whom I'd futilely asked, nor their fault that the Post Office had given the church a misleading street address. (Actually, I later found, the church building has its own separate street address, which would have given me a much better idea of where I was going.) Besides, they said, next time I'll know where to go. Next time? Am I the last new attendee they ever expect to have?

Although it didn't surprise me - nobody ever takes responsibility for incomplete directions or lack of signs, or has it occur to them that first-timers need to be told where to go - this exchange put me in a bad mood. Fortunately, the music cheered me up immediately. As I wrote in the review, "the 21-member chorus was just fantastically good." Their program largely of Italian Renaissance church music included a few ringers from later periods, and concluded with a semi-encore, as brilliantly performed as everything else, of an old novelty song about the Italian Christmas donkey. It was later suggested to me that I should have written that the chorus kicked ass, but that's not something I would say.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

Peter O'Toole, 1932-2013

Celebrate his memory by getting out your copies of not just My Favorite Year and Lawrence of Arabia and The Lion in Winter, but The Stunt Man and Becket and Man of La Mancha and What's New, Pussycat? and The Last Emperor and King Ralph and, if you've ever managed to get hold of it (which I haven't), Dean Spanley, and a bunch of others, too.

What a movie star. What an actor, too.

Friday, December 13, 2013

from the title by J.R.R. Tolkien

Here's what happens in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Don't worry: no spoilers in this part, just stuff from the book.

Thorin and Company visit Beorn, and ride borrowed steeds to the eaves of Mirkwood, where Gandalf leaves them to deal with Dol Guldur. In the forest, Bilbo climbs a tree to have a lookout. They're attacked by spiders, and the dwarves are captured by the Elves. Bilbo swipes a key and releases them, and they escape in barrels, and go to Laketown. At the Mountain, Thorin opens the side door with the key; Bilbo goes down and talks with Smaug; the dragon flies off to attack Laketown.

That's it. Nearly three hours long, and that single paragraph of plot is, as far as I can make it, the entire sum total of what this movie took from its book. Everything else in it, nearly three hours of it, is stuff PJ made up. Or changed beyond recognition; for instance, the two words "visit Beorn"? That's about all that that scene has in common with the book. A few things I left out of the summary may seem to be from the book, but they're not; for instance, the Elvenking interrogates Thorin, but the conversation is entirely different; and Bard appears, but he's also totally different (and, it turns out, a really bad actor).

And don't tell me it's all from LOTR, or the Appendices, or the Silmarillion. If I haven't missed anything, here's everything the movie got from there:
1) Flashback to Thorin meeting Gandalf in Bree;
2) Identification of the Necromancer with Sauron, and the consequent general threat to the peace of Middle-earth;
3) Legolas (who looks far older than he did in the LOTR films: do Elves age backwards?)
4) Brief allusions to Galadriel;
5) Athelas as a healing weed.

Here's just some of the stuff PJ made up, that's not from Tolkien at all:
(OK, now you can have some spoilers)
1) a band of orcs chasing the company to Beorn's, down the River Running, and all the way to Laketown, the better to transform the movie into an endless series of chase scenes;
2) the She-Elf (as the orcs call her), and her flirtation with Kili while Legolas stands around smoldering, looking more like her angry father than a spurned lover;
3) the dwarves slamming Beorn's front door shut in his own face; surprisingly, he's still willing to help them after that;
4) turning the Arkenstone into a McGuffin that confers the right to rule, and, incidentally, Thorin sending Bilbo down to steal that specifically, and since he doesn't manage it (partly because the dragon is there the first time), he accomplishes nothing at the Mountain as a burglar;
5) the dragon becomes Bard's fault because his ancestor, Girion, was a bad shot and failed to kill it (!);
6) the space between the last two items in my summary (Bilbo meeting Smaug and the dragon flying off) largely filled with an enormously long, utterly tiresome, and implausibly restricted (because PJ can't kill off any of the good guys at this point, much as they deserve it) series of scenes of the dwarves and the dragon chasing each other around inside the mountain. This turns out to be utterly pointless, as well, because it emerges that the dwarves' plan is to get their smelter turned on so that they can melt a huge pile of gold and pour it over the dragon, a la Auric Goldfinger. However, this fails either to kill the dragon or do anything other than piss him off, which becomes why, since he's contractually prevented from killing the dwarves, he flies off to burn Laketown instead;
7) an injured Kili, with a couple other dwarves to keep him company, left behind in Laketown (where they have no business being), attacked by orcs who have somehow managed to sneak onto Laketown (where they have no business being), and ridiculously surprise-rescued by Legolas and She-Elf (who also have no business being there).

Bilbo is a minor supporting character in this movie, and never gets a chance to be seen screwing up his courage and acquiring the maturity that the story is actually supposed to be about.
Gandalf is even more useless.
All the villains, whether played by Benedict Cumberbatch or not, speak in the same processed deep echoing villain voice that Jackson uses for just about all his villains.
She-Elf is your generic, right-out-of-the-box Warrior Princess, so if you like those, you'll like her.
None of the acting is very good - even Martin Freeman mostly just looks cross, and, for the first time in his entire career, Stephen Fry (as the Master of Laketown) is just ghastly - but for stiff, bad acting, the prize goes to the piece of wood playing Bard.

I am relieved to see that I felt far less bludgeoned over the head than at the previous movie. This is possibly because my eyes were rolling so far back in my head that I felt catatonic. But I couldn't have been, because I kept checking my watch in hopes that maybe the bloody thing would soon be over.

Look, I really don't mind PJ making up a story. It's your run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure story. I have just one complaint.

What is Tolkien's name doing on it?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

apparently we need to keep saying this

or, it's not only Tolkien I keep going on about

Aslan didn't do anything to Susan. She did it to herself. She doesn't return to Narnia because she doesn't believe in the place any more. Lipstick is not the cause of her (self-)banishment but a symptom of her disease. She's a teenager who wants to be all Grown-Up and Fashionable, and retaining appreciation of her childhood loves and fancies doesn't fit in with her "mature" self-image. Real maturity, as Polly says, would embrace at least a fond recollection of what one enjoyed in childhood.

(the generating irritant)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

food and cooking

Deb N. wrote about food and cooking. Basically she said she likes cooking more than eating, because it's more involving and takes longer. (That's oversimplified. Read it.)

That runs interestingly orthogonally to my preferences. I rather enjoy cooking, but for me the primary pleasure in it, and the whole point of the process, is that at the end there will be something to eat. This varies. Sometimes cooking is just a chore to get through to provide food. At the other end, I sometimes enjoy cooking things that I'm not interested in eating. I discovered this particular pleasure at summer camp in childhood, when I found that I did not like campfire-roasted marshmallows, but I did enjoy the challenge of toasting one perfectly brown and letting someone else eat it.

I realized my goal-oriented feeling towards food also in childhood, when I was taken fishing. To a true fisherman (or -woman, I suppose), the point of fishing is to spend the day fishing. Making a meal out of the result is lagniappe. I don't feel that way. If I want to expend vast lengths of time doing something enjoyable, I'll read or listen to music, or both. To me, fishing may be fun, but the entire point of doing it is to catch fish, take them home, clean, cook, and eat them. (I once went clam-digging with friends. That was loads of fun, though the clams didn't think so, but it was also more labor-intensive for the amount of food than anything else in the food-prep department I've ever done. Not surprisingly, I've never repeated it. It would be a lot less fun done regularly.)

I'm similar with other things. Writing is sometimes difficult: the pleasure is in having written. I enjoy driving, exploring places I haven't been, or haven't been in a long time, but I never just go out on a drive without a destination. (Cruising utterly baffles me. Who wants to be in a back-and-forth traffic jam for hours on end? That strikes me as the complete opposite of fun.) If I want to go somewhere without a particular reason, I make up a destination, usually a restaurant I want to try.

I'm not a particularly talented cook. Basic competence in the kitchen is my speed; good slugger on a sandlot team but no more than that. Most of my dinners are stir-frys, sautés, or casseroles. Only occasionally, for a special occasion, do I make elaborate from-scratch dishes. Typical of that for me is the quiche I submitted to the Tiptree supper book, and that's not that elaborate. (I don't make my own pie crust.) Mostly I take recipes from packages and run variations on them. I do like the tinkering. I prefer cooking to baking, because baking demands rigid precision in ingredients and isn't much amenable to improvisation.

Unless I'm taking a dish to a potluck, in which case it has to be something that will keep and carry, which doesn't always work well, B. is usually my only audience. We're not social animals and almost never have anyone over; for us, home is a refuge from the world, not a place to invite it in. I know what B. likes and I enjoy pleasing her; nothing pleased me more than discovering she shares my taste for vastly overcooked vegetables.

Monday, December 9, 2013

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

I spent most of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, when I wasn't wondering why the soloist seemed to have such little feel for the music, trying to think of how I was going to describe her distinctive violin tone. Eventually the word "banshee" came to mind. Review.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Colin Wilson?

Arthur Hlavaty reports that Colin Wilson has died. Strangely, I find this difficult to confirm. None of the British newspapers I've checked have, as of the moment, reported his death, except possibly the Times, which hides its stuff behind a paywall. Wikipedia gives the date as this last Thursday with no source. The Wilson website linked to from there lists him as 1931-2013 in its header, but its news update page hasn't been updated since March. The only other sources I can find are a couple of bloggers, Mike Glyer among them.

Surely he hasn't fallen so far into obscurity as that? Wilson burst into fame in 1956 when he was still only 24, as "the sleeping-bag philosopher of Hampstead Heath," who had adopted that form of nighttime abode for a while to save money while writing his first book by day in the British Museum. The book, which caused all the fuss, was a survey of existentialist alienation in modern literature, called The Outsider. Apparently nothing like it had been done in litcrit before, because it was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece and its author as a young genius. A few months later everyone woke up and realized that The Outsider was nothing but a collection of quotations strung together with a tissue of connecting material that assumed that the quotes spoke for themselves. It seemed pretentious and overblown and composed of nothing much. Wilson quickly dropped off the critical map and never returned. Apparently even death has not released him.

But that didn't stop him. Wilson had been called a genius and was ever after sure that he was. He assumed that he was qualified to pronounce on any subject, and did. He wrote prolifically and still got published, fiction as well as nonfiction. His main focus was on the occult, both in literature and in purported reality. But he wrote on other things too.

I have two of his books, both on subjects I know pretty well. They are almost breathtakingly breezy in their sweep and assumed confident knowledge, and they're terribly name-droppy. (His essay on Tolkien begins, "A few years ago, I went to have lunch with W.H. Auden in his New York apartment. It was the first time I'd met him, and Norman Mailer had warned me ..." Well, did you evah?) A few unintentionally comic gaps in Wilson's knowledge show just how much of it must have come from hasty superficial skimming. Arthur cites Wilson's unfamiliarity with π, and the essay on Tolkien, in claiming that "Tolkien's style and erudition must make a refreshing change" for the college students who made up his fan base, says this is because other things like it they're likely to read are so bad, in particular science fiction: "It is almost impossible to name a science fiction novel written ... since Amazing Stories made the genre so popular that rises above the clichés of cheap pulp fiction."

Now the argument that Gernsback ruined SF, at least for a time, has been made by others, in particular Darrell Schweitzer (a writer remarkably like Wilson in his breezy sweep and casual readability). But this is 1973, and Wilson has just not been keeping up if he thinks SF is still all pulpy by any definition.

Mostly the Tolkien essay is better than that. It's a stout defense, though undermined by repeated grumbles at aspects of Tolkien that Wilson finds irritating, and it's most valuable for its breeziness, drawing comparisons to everyone from Chesterton and Yeats to Jeffrey Farnol and Bernard Shaw. He discusses most of Tolkien's available fiction on an equal basis, and claims Niggle as an Outsider. Reflecting his particular fondness for "Leaf by Niggle," Wilson titles his piece Tree by Tolkien, and as it was published as a chapbook it's gotten more attention than a magazine article of the same length would.

The other Wilson book I have is his equally breezy 1964 survey of classical music, Brandy of the Damned: Discoveries of a Musical Eclectic (US Chords and Discords, with an added chapter on US music which I've copied and stuck in the back). Wilson acknowledges being completely untrained; these are simply the musings of an enthusiastic listener to mostly 19th & 20th century music on records and the radio (he doesn't like concerts, because the repertoire tends to be too stuffy). I have to say, though: however superficial his self-education, Wilson knows most of his stuff. I disagree with many of his judgments - he finds Vaughan Williams irritating, and attributes to Britten the twee quality that most negative critics would assign to VW instead, though he's basing this on the children's operas and the Spring Symphony; OK, I can see it, though I still disagree - but he says a lot I feel to be right on that others wouldn't say. He says, "Mahler has little in common with Bruckner except the number and length of his symphonies." Right on! He says, "Sullivan's fertility and melodic gift were surely as great as Rossini's." Right on! In particular, he has the guts, or the innocence, to disregard a lot of 1964 critical orthodoxy. He praises Sibelius at the nadir of his reputation, though, oddly enough, he doesn't actually discuss Sibelius's music. In particular, he denies the strident critical orthodoxy of the time that serialism is the central tradition of modern music. If it were, he says, it wouldn't be necessary to argue the point. "Beethoven seemed a difficult composer to the general public of his day, and his late quartets are still as 'difficult' for the average listener as any Schoenberg; but the manifest importance of what he had to say carried the day. ... If any of these men [e.g. Schoenberg, Sessions, Copland in his 'difficult' phases] were obviously of the stature of Beethoven, there would be no argument; the works themselves would carry the day."

Right on.

Friday, December 6, 2013

I think it, they say it

1. The problem with GPS is that it may tell you where to turn, but not why you're turning. They're meaningless directions followed by rote and impossible to internalize. As a spatially-oriented person who operates entirely by placing myself in a mental map, I would feel helpless outsourcing my cognitive functions this way.

2. "Mr Obama seems to me to be precisely the sort of moderate, centrist, I-understand-your-perspective type of politician that conservatives claim to be looking for; all of the energy torquing him into a figure of racial polarisation has come from the conservatives who claim to be angered by that polarisation."


1. This comment is as brief as I could make it, biting its tongue on the vast amount that could be said on the topic of HIP (Historically Informed Performance, as it's called now, its practitioners having backed down from calling it "authentic"). Read the post it's on for a link to a superficial but amusing radio show on the topic of Beethoven's tempi.

1a. Finding a link to Gardiner's invigoratingly fast performance of the Eroica made me salivate for more, so I got out my set of his Beethoven symphony recordings to accompany chores. It takes two movements of the Seventh to set up our artificial Christmas tree, and three movements of the Eighth to chop up veggies and otherwise get things ready for cooking dinner.

2. Thursday is the day the weekend movie showtime lists appear in the paper. Not finding Inside Llewyn Davis, which appears in "limited release" on Friday, on it, I found Fandango to be mute on the topic of telling me where a movie not playing today was going to be playing tomorrow. So I'd like to record here for future reference that Moviefone is the site that will tell you what you need to know, in this case that the "limited release" is only four screens nationwide, none nearer to here than LA. OK, now that I know, I'll wait.

2a. Also, it has a useful article with clips from Oscar Isaac's previous movies, in case you're wondering who the heck he is.

3. Nelson Mandela. It is perhaps not possible to be sufficiently appreciative of a man who, having spent decades locked up for violence against an oppressive regime, emerges full of forgiveness and reconciliation towards that regime, helps it step down peacefully, and then becomes head of a new regime without - and this is the most amazing part - turning into a rancid dictator himself. An accolade too lightly used is true in this case: He deserves to stand with the other great founders of modern nations, like Washington, Atatürk, Masaryk, and Ben-Gurion.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

JFK memorial

The most interesting part of a coffee table book on The Day Kennedy Died, by the editors of Life magazine, which I guess still exists in some form, is an inserted reproduction of the memorial issue of Life from the week after the event. True, I could have browsed through this any time at the library, but the point is, I didn't.

The ads! Cigarettes, land yachts, equally ungainly home appliances (did portable dishwashers ever work right?), a full page ad from The Phone Company urging readers to call long distance, which might seem unnecessary from a more recent viewpoint, but in those days they needed a big ad to get customers, because in those days long distance phone calls cost the earth.

Other news: A list of Christmas events nationwide reveals that the sing-along Messiah had already been invented, right here in San Francisco. A tskish article by Teddy White on the background to the rise in Black militancy is filled with sweeping generalizations and phrases like "the Negro leaders." The leaders in question are mostly city councilmembers; MLK is mentioned but not discussed, and Malcolm X does not exist.

On the assassination itself: This is the issue with a four-page spread that first published excerpts from the Zapruder film. What I had not known is that nowhere does the caption say who took the photos, or under what circumstances, or even that they're movie frames rather than conventional still pictures. And not only did the editors delete the frame showing the second shot, that hit JFK in the head, they also deleted it from the description. In this version there's only the one that got him in the neck, and though the caption mentions "blood flowing from the President's head," it says that Jackie "cradles him in her arms" and then inexplicably "scrambles out of her seat and crawls onto the trunk of the car in a pathetic search for help" instead of for the real reason, which is that she was instinctively trying to retrieve a piece of his skull. A useful reminder of how confused early reports of all sudden tragedies are.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Well, I am really looking forward to this.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

a trip to the City, with music, art, food, and fabric

So I had a ticket to the San Francisco Symphony's production of Britten's War Requiem and I thought that B. might be interested in that too. She was, so I got a second ticket. Then I discovered that the Cartoon Art Museum was having an exhibit of art from Sandman (it's on till March, so plenty of time), and that also interested both of us, so we made a day of it, using BART and the Muni streetcars, plus a healthful amount of walking, to get around.

The exhibit consisted largely of original inked but uncolored pages by a variety of artists from Sandman's run, full of paste-ups (lettering was often but not always done separately and pasted on) and blue-pencil comments, plus preliminary sketches and some post-publication homages to the characters. In a table case that you'd better not lean on or it'd tip over was Gaiman's original proposal for the series. I'd known that some of the characters were taken from older comics, but I hadn't known until I read this that the basic idea of a personification of dream was borrowed from Swamp Thing, which neither of us has read.

Among the other exhibits was a collection of Ronald Searle pieces from a now-little-known part of his career, illustrations he did for American magazines in the early 1960s, including an amusing unpublished sequence of JFK, all hair and teeth, giving a speech in 1960. I do remember the covers he did for TV Guide in those days, and was properly newly impressed by Searle's ability to draw caricatures that, while technically looking nothing like the actor depicted, are nevertheless instantly recognizable and capture the essence of the character. (It also makes me wonder anew why it is, when I read comic books based on TV shows, that comic-book artists seem uniformly unable to draw characters who look at all like the actors who play them. I gave up on Buffy Season 8 in part because I often couldn't tell who the characters on the page were supposed to be.)

In the gift shop I finally had a chance to browse through a volume of the Annotated Sandman, to find that it belongs to one of the two main classes of annotations, the one that leaves out half of what ought to be in it, much of it vitally important if you already know it, while including other things that are even more obvious to the point of puerility. I don't think I'll be getting this.

We had lots of extra time after leaving the museum, so we hopped it a couple blocks across Market to Britex, the truly awesome fabric store, four floors of fabrics and notions, for B. to browse through and, it turned out, to buy some exotic lengths of ribbon.

Dinner at The Grove, then over to Davies for the concert. Huge stage-filling orchestral setup, with a small separate chamber orchestra (led by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik) where the first violins normally go, and the large remainder (led by associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman) crammed over the rest of the stage. Tenor and baritone soloists in front, soprano behind, on a raised throne-like platform, in front of the chorus that she mostly sings with.

I'd never actually heard this work before, so I was surprised at how gentle and contemplative the music mostly is, despite the enormous forces. The program notes said that Britten was inspired by Bach's Passions and Verdi's Requiem, but those are structural similarities; the music doesn't sound remotely like either of those. What it did remind me of, aside from a lot of crashingly obvious Stravinsky borrowings, was, of all things, the Berlioz Requiem. Like that, it was stark, blocky, thinly scored for usually having only one thing going on at once, and often declamatory in the choral parts. Adult and boys' choruses (all superb) plus soprano sang the Latin requiem text; tenor and baritone stood up at intervals to interject chromatically wandering settings of Wilfred Owen poetry, including one but not the other of his most bitter denunciations of war, accompanied by the jangly chamber orchestra while the rest kept silent.

Only in the concluding section does everybody play and sing at once. The work ends with soft fading notes from unaccompanied chorus. Conductor Semyon Bychkov slowly squeezed his hands to direct them, then stood motionless for a long stretch while everyone held their breath. Only when he visibly relaxed did the applause begin. Best ever audience etiquette, and they didn't cough very much during the 90-minute length either.