Wednesday, September 30, 2015

weekday update

1. I've finished compiling the index to this book. I'd burble about the process, but I've done that before and you're not already caught up on where I started.

2. Article on what Playboy thought was hip back in 1953. Before its self-declared suave bachelor seduced a woman, he'd invite her up for "a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." And I thought, how terminally unhip am I? I don't like Picasso (for painters active in 1953, try me on Wyeth or Magritte), I've never read Nietzsche who sounds repulsive (I don't read much philosophy, and the only canonical modern philosophers I've read extensively in are Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill), and I basically don't do jazz. I do classical, of course, and had I been around in 1953 with the level of knowledge of that era's music I have today, I would have named the three greatest living composers as Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Shostakovich, a list which would have earned me looks of withering condescension by the cognoscenti of the time. But wait 30 or 40 years and I would have been vindicated, as their reputations all rebounded.

3. Here's a challenging quiz I did pretty well at: Can you identify these world cities from their street plans alone?

4. Article about airline mergers, focusing on the difficulty of retraining agents from the merged airline on the acquirer's computer systems. And I thought, I've been there. Throughout my career as a library cataloger, every couple of years I had to learn a new program as I'd go to a new employer or my old one would switch vendors or the vendor would make a massive upgrade. All these programs dealt with exactly the same kind of data with the same coding - the equivalent of "find this passenger an aisle seat" in the airline biz - but they all handled it completely differently and made the user jump through entirely different sets of hoops.

Monday, September 28, 2015

concert review: Fremont Symphony

The last time I reviewed the Fremont Symphony, I got heavily bruised in comments from people who did not share my judgment that the conductor did an adequate job. Well, that conductor is gone, and Fremont is down to a series of guests this year, so I hope they're satisfied.

What drew both me and my editor to Saturday's concert was the alluring program. Chen Yi! (a much under-rated woman composer) Takemitsu, the great Japanese mystic! (Not as much to my taste as, say, Messiaen or Pärt, but still ...) Francis Poulenc's Organ Concerto: now there's an unusual and neglected 20C masterpiece for you.

The newly-reduced word count didn't leave me space to say much about any of them, and I'm slightly amazed that the editors let pass my reference to the "chugga-chugga rhythms" in Karl Jenkins' Palladio. You're probably unfamiliar with that title, but you may still know the piece, as it's the source of the music in this commercial. (chorus: oh, that one!)

To my distress, I was rather tired out during this concert: short on sleep and not having been able to get much of a nap beforehand. It affects my receptivity to the music. It also affected something else: staying in my seat during intermission and attempting to get a few winks in, I was suddenly interrupted by a screechy voice saying, "Are you trying to take a nap?" This proved to belong to a middle-aged woman in an expensive dress with lots of jewelry and perfume, who'd sat down next to me to pose this query. She must have been part of the local gentry, as among the few equally well-dressed people standing in the aisle watching this I recognized the president of the symphony association.

I was not too tired to think up the reply, "If that was the case, then why did you interrupt it?" She semi-apologized but didn't answer the question, and while blabbering caressed my face in what she probably thought was a motherly way. I swatted her hand off. Had I been less tired, she might have gotten a lot more of a response. Grrrr. I haven't seen such pure rudeness from gentry since the last time I read Jane Austen.

Also unmentioned by me in the review, but more pleasant to hear, were a group of students who took turns playing bits of violin solos - a chunk of the solo part of the Mendelssohn concerto, that sort of thing - in the atrium before the concert.

And I've got to either find somewhere decent to eat dinner near the Fremont Hub before concerts in those parts, or else go down to Irvington or Milpitas, where there are better places.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

food in Niagara-by-the-Lake

Great topic when facing Yom Kippur, eh?

Niagara-by-the-Lake, located just downstream from the Falls, is a small town with a Shaw Festival, and consequently has all the characteristics of a boutique theatre town. Its one main street is lined with gift shops and restaurants, mostly plenty upscale. One restaurant is actually called the Epicurian.

Many of the gift shops are food-oriented. There are shops that sell exotic olive oils and spices in bottles. The one I visited wrapped the bottles up plenty well without being asked, which was convenient for putting them in my suitcase prior to plane travel. There are shops that sell candy. One had about 15 flavors of Turkish delight in jars, far more flavors than the Turkish delight specialty shop in Seattle's Pike Place ever has, though they didn't have its specialty of rose-flavored. One kind of candy common in Canada (I also found some in a mall in Windsor) that I've never seen in the US is blueberry-flavored chocolate bars. I bought one to take home for B.

I also bought for B. some exotic coffee from the shop that sells coffees and teas. When I asked if the packages were beans or ground, they said beans and offered to grind it, but then they asked me what kind of coffee-maker I have. I don't know. B. drinks the coffee; I know nothing about the stuff. I've had shops grind coffee for me before without interrogating me about coffee-makers. We got through that OK.

We had lunch in the Olde Angel Inn, spelled that way. This is the kind of olde Englishe pubbe that's so authenticke that I doubt you could find anything like it in England. It's not just the weathered-wood decor and the photos of the royal family on the wall, it's the greasy fries (this is Canada, so they don't call them "chips") and the insistence on serving peas and carrots with everything. I ordered sausage rolls, as an appetizer so they wouldn't inflict me with peas and carrots, and ate them gloomily (they were rather tasteless) while thinking of the sausage-roll conspiracy in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Grand Duke which left the conspirators sick of sausage rolls. The chicken and rice soup tasted canned. My brother liked the unusual offering of chicken-and-peach pie, though.

And that place was supposed to be good. For dinner we picked Bistro 61, named for its street number, because the menu looked promising. There I had bouillabaisse, to make up for the starchy lunch. It was mostly mussels and possibly not any clams, though there were clam shells, plus two prawns and some salmon. Once I removed all the shells it wasn't a very large bowl of soup, but they were good mussels and the broth was spicy and memorable, and there was much less grit than this dish often has. So it wasn't bad, and the service was fast and excellent: a notable plus when you have a curtain time.

Some of these places take US cash at varying exchange rates, but I had loaded up with Canadian cash at an ATM and used a credit card freely.

home again

14 hours in 4 airports and the consequent airplanes, much of it crammed in next to a man who denied that he'd been jiggling his leg when I asked him not to, but stopped anyway, was not the ideal way to travel 2600 miles, but it wasn't the original plan.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

pshaw festival

Location: at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Attended: two plays by the sainted GBS.

Pygmalion, unfortunately, fell victim to the kind of pyggish director who believes in updating plays to make them "relevant". This long-standing disease in productions of Shakespeare (and opera) has now infected Shaw. Oh dear. On the belief that this is a play about class-rising aspiration, and the fact that class gradients are stronger in the UK today than a century ago when the play was written, it was given a contemporary setting. But that's not really the theme of the play, and there are too many century-old assumptions and manners of behavior built into the plot to make this work. For instance, an alarming number of references to physical violence have a disturbingly different resonance today that was not addressed. On top of which were picky issues like the opening scene in which Freddy runs around in the rain looking for a taxi. If this is today, why doesn't he just use Uber?

Some aspects worked better. Eliza was played by an actress of South Asian ancestry, which is the ethnicity she would have today, although she still spoke in cockney, or, rather, the best imitation of it that the actress (born in Kenya, raised in Ottawa) could manage. In the famous scene in which Eliza, asked if she will walk home, replies, "Not bloody likely; I'm going home in a taxi," for "bloody" was substituted a stronger expletive that still has the power to shock, and that was one piece of successful updating.

A production of the somewhat less well-known You Never Can Tell was staged in a conventional but imaginative manner. Like Mrs. Warren's Profession, which it somewhat resembles, it's one of Shaw's more amusing earlier plays. It's hard to describe briefly exactly what it's about, but one thing it's about is a woman so horrified by her former marriage that she has never informed her now-grown children of who their father is or anything about him. Then they run into him accidentally: hilarity and much Shavian dialogue ensue. At one point, one character says, "No, I will speak. I have been silent for nearly thirty seconds," which I consider the perfectly encapsulating Shaw line.

The acting and (insofar, in the case of Pygmalion, that it stuck to the play) directing were adequate but mostly not inspiring. It was all fast, but it could have been tighter and sparklier. Special points to Patrick McManus for playing the grouchy and obstreperous Higgins in Pygmalion in the evening, immediately after playing the even grouchier and more obstreperous father in You Never Can Tell in the afternoon.

The theatres here are strung out along the town's one main street, which is otherwise filled with a modest number of varyingly pretentious restaurants and a vast number of upscale and indulgent gift shops. Weather in September is cool and threatening, but without much actual rain.

report from the road

Ontario is very large. Even the little fiddly bit at the bottom of the map is very large.

Friday, September 18, 2015

I am pleased to announce

that there will soon be two merit awards established in my mother's name at her alma mater, the University of Michigan: one in the History Department for best undergraduate scholarly paper, and one at the Michigan Daily for achievement in copy-editing.

And I and my brother have gotten to find out what it's like to be big-time - well, rather small-time, actually - academic donors. They bought us lunch, and their interest in these 65-year-old effects - I brought along a photo of my mother as an undergrad being editorial in the Daily offices, and the original of her magnum opus in B.A. scholarship, a thesis on the Boer War - seemed genuine.

And money has changed hands, and when it's earned enough interest in the Endowment Fund, next year, we will be on.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

major minor

(no, not a music post)

Reading John Major's memoirs to pass the time, I'm reminded that my biggest hurdle in reading about this period in British politics is Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont. I find it almost impossible to remember both their names at once ("ok, there was another Chancellor of the Exchequer whose initials were also N.L.: now what was his name?") or, when I do see a reference to one of them, remembering which one he is. If I'd ever seen them on tv or anything, I might have less difficulty.

Major seems weirdly proud of having missed most of the warning signals leading to Thatcher's downfall.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

literary observations

1. B. was watching Under the Dome on tv. I wandered in as a woman was addressing a cadre (they were all lined up like one) outdoors. I said, "If they're under a dome, why is her hair waving in the breeze?"

2. Our book discussion topic was Maplecroft by Cherie Priest. Lizzie Borden battles Cthulhu: now that's a great concept. Unfortunately that didn't make it a good book. (Insofar as that, it reminded me of Babylon-5: great concept, lousy execution.) It was compelling reading: that I didn't get very far into it was solely due to lack of time. But I wasn't enjoying it. (Insofar as that, it reminded me of Stephen King: compelling storyteller, gawdawful stylist.) The narrators all sound alike - it's a bad sign when I have to keep flipping back to the start of the chapter to remember who's talking - and what they sound like is nothing like any 1890s narrator I've ever read before. (Or like Lovecraft, the other suggestion.) And not only do they keep behaving inexplicably, because the plot requires them to, they're baffled at their own inexplicable behavior.

Interestingly, hardly anyone else at the meeting liked it much either, and my impressions from the first part of the book were confirmed by those who'd made it to the end. The mysteries never get explained, I was told: either you get the references to Miskatonic University and such, in which case the overheated vague descriptions are just annoying, or else you don't, in which case it's just baffling. Authors trying for the mysteriously numinous is no good if they don't know how to do it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Colbert on 9/10: two footnotes

I watched clips from the show on YouTube, and two things of interest came up.

Everybody has been talking about that extraordinary conversation between Colbert and Biden about personal grief and faith, but I want to bring up something else. At the beginning of the second segment, Colbert asked Biden about the Vice Presidency. And Biden said, "There is no inherent power in the Vice Presidency. ... It is directly a reflection of your relationship with the President." This is the same point Biden made back in the debate with Palin when he was first running, and it is exactly right. Biden knew personally every Vice President going back to Hubert Humphrey, and he understands the office. He understands it better than Dick Cheney, who postulated a monstrous and absurd theory that the VP was exempt from any oversight. Biden understands it better than Palin, who wondered publicly what the VP does all day: she should have asked McCain, who could have told her what he'd have her do. Biden understands it better than the fools who told Palin to look in the Constitution, where it says the VP presides over the Senate. That today is an occasional ceremonial job, and not a day-to-day duty. The Vice President is the President's only staff member who can't be summarily fired, and consequently is either the President's most trusted adviser, as most recent VPs have been, or else he is nothing, which VPs used to be and is the reason the office became the subject of jokes.

The other item of interest was the interview with Travis Kalanick of Uber. Kalanick defended Uber from the charge of destroying the taxi industry on the grounds that it's better for drivers because they don't have to pay to rent their cab (cabbies have to do that? news to me), they can use their own cars (as if they didn't have to pay for those, too), they can set their own hours instead of being stuck to a shift (although cabbies in Donald Westlake novels can always clock off), and that they can make more money (though studies have claimed that they don't). But then Colbert, in specific response to this claim that Uber is good for the drivers, asked about the prospect of self-driving cars: how does it help drivers if you replace them with robots? And Kalanick said that driverless cars are coming anyway, and a tech company shouldn't try to "resist the future" or it'll go the way of taxis. Well, you can say that, though it's also an arguable point. But if you do say that, then you reveal that you have no interest in benefiting the drivers: anything they get is just largesse, crumbs for the birds falling from your sandwich. The drivers are your useful tools, and as soon as they're no longer useful you'll drop them without a care, because you shouldn't "resist the future," a future in which only a few wealthy people will be able to take Uber rides because nobody else will have a job and be able to afford it. And that is why Travis Kalanick, whether he knows it or not, is a reversion to a 19th-century robber baron.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

has the other foot dropped?

In all the talk I've seen about the Labour Party (UK) and its leadership election, one question that seems to me a screamingly obvious one to ask has hardly been brought up at all: to what extent does the booming of Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy, now culminated with his election, resemble the election of Michael Foot as party leader in 1980? On this unanswered question hangs what my reaction to it will be.

None of the news analysis pieces I've seen addresses this question at all. British friends whom I've asked about it focus on the simple fact that Corbyn is not Foot, and seem unable to address the broader question of similarity. The only thing I've seen that deals with the question is an opinion piece by a Corbyn supporter arguing that Labour's decisive turn to the left in the late 70s and early 80s had nothing to do with the party's crashing loss in the 1983 election, but the piece draws no parallels, and its facts are so erroneous, its viewpoint so strongly one-sided, and its conclusion so ludicrous that I can't give it any credit.

There are some remarkable similarities between the situations. Both elections followed a roughly 20-year period during which the party had leaned to its right side, featuring periods in government (1966-70 and 1974-9; 1997-2010) which had their successes but which were ended by fairly tight but embarrassing election defeats under establishment-candidate fag-end prime ministers (Jim Callaghan, Gordon Brown) who'd never led the party to victory and seemed to lack the knack.

Then - after Callaghan stayed leader for a year in 1980, and after the Ed Miliband interval and another even more dismaying general election loss in 2015 - the party elected what in some respects was the same character: a long-time left-wing back-bench gadfly, a fervent self-declared socialist, rumpled and gaunt and white-haired, devoid of pomposity or slickness, 66-67 years old [yes, Foot then and Corbyn now are almost exactly the same age], and personally well-liked across the party but considered as appalling a choice as leader by his opponents as he was eagerly celebrated by his supporters.

Despite the choice of a more right-wing figure as deputy leader (one more similarity between the two situations), Labour after 1980 turned even more decisively to the socialist left, and it was a hard, authoritarian left, not a warm, civil-libertarian one. Some of the leading right-wing figures of the 1974-9 government, shouted down at Labour conferences and otherwise feeling hounded out of the party, decamped altogether and set up a new party, the Social Democrats. That presentation of an alternative, plus Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher's newfound popularity (her first since taking office) after the Falklands War, and an extreme Labour manifesto (calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EU) dubbed by one party wag "the longest suicide note in history," led to a crashing defeat in the 1983 election, with Labour barely scraping to second place in the vote and losing many seats.

Foot immediately resigned, and Neil Kinnock was elected leader: another left-wing back-bench gadfly, but one who used these credentials as standing to criticize the authoritarian excesses of the left. The fact that he lost both the elections that he stood as leader in is sometimes held against Kinnock, and he's considered a traitor by many on the left, but he did begin a rebuilding process which improved the party's standings greatly, made it able to pick up the pieces when the Conservatives crumbled in 1997, and went far enough rightward that there's meaningful truth in the observation that "Tony Blair, M.P." anagrams as "I'm Tory Plan B." And the cycle continued revolving. (I could have made the parallel stronger by bringing up the Bevanite rebellion of 1951 which kicked off the previous cycle, but enough.)

There are, however, differences between 1980 and today. Least important is that Foot, unlike Corbyn, actually served in government office. After an entire career on the back benches, he accepted posts in the 1974-9 government. But he never compromised - he acted as much of a left-wing gadfly in Whitehall as he ever did in his insurgent speeches - and the difference is due less to any distinction between Foot and Corbyn than to the different strategies of Harold Wilson - the PM who appointed Foot - and Tony Blair. Blair was a right-wing authoritarian who crushed the left, while Wilson was so dedicated to mollifying all sides that twistiness and squirming, tacking to this side and then that, defined his political personality. Blair would never have appointed Foot any more than he did Corbyn, while Wilson would have tried his best to sweet-talk Corbyn into office as he did with Foot.

A far bigger difference lies in the different nature of the election. Foot was the last Labour leader elected by a vote of MPs only. (The theory was that the leader was only the chairman of the MPs - once true but long ceased to be credible - and so should be chosen by those who served under him.) The MPs as a whole were not much more leftist then than they are now, but they were under extreme pressure from militant constituency parties, which threatened and often carried out deselection of MPs who followed their own will and not the militants', and the labour unions, which provided support and funding for the party. Also a few right-wingers voted for Foot out of exasperation, wishing to bring the conflict out in the open.

Today's constituency parties and unions appear, as far as I can tell, to be less militant, and in any case the election procedure has changed, and is now open to anyone willing to pay £3 to join the party. Corbyn seems to have won on a wave of enthusiasm from previously disaffected and apathetic people who've signed up in new hope. That gives a positive vibe that I didn't feel in 1980, which felt more like a purge.

There's also the fact that Foot, though one of the most brilliant intellectuals in British politics and warmly loved personally, came across in media coverage as a political loony of a kind that doesn't seem to stick when the same charges are made of Corbyn. I have no idea whether these two differences are just perceptual and tactical, or if there's a real divergence here. The problem I have in finding out is that the people willing to tell me how wonderful Corbyn is also think that Foot was equally wonderful. Such a person can't tell me the difference any more than a person who thinks that run-of-the-mill SF is terrific can be trusted to point out the masterworks of the field. (Except by reporting other people's consensus, and in the political case these folks distrust the consensus as media-generated.)

One thing I don't know is how closely the political positions of Corbyn and his supporters map on to those of Foot and the militants of times past. Like Foot, Corbyn is a unilateralist; but he seems less apocalyptic about it: yet that may be because the Cold War was still on then but is over now. Like Foot, Corbyn distrusts the EU, but he seems less dogmatic about wanting to leave it. Is Corbyn an authoritarian who wants to build a utopia by fiat, or is he a lover of organically-grown equality who wants to grow it through civil freedom (not the same thing as the spurious concept of "economic freedom")? I can't really tell.

The next critical step is Corbyn's appointment of a shadow cabinet. Though no fudger like Wilson, Foot appointed as many of the prominent right-wingers to spokesmanships as he could get to serve under him. (Many would not, and decamped to the Social Democrats.) The idea was to reconcile them to his leadership. Today as many right-wingers are declining to serve under the new leader as were then, though they're making no noise about leaving, at least not yet. Will Corbyn be able to find any to serve? Will he want to? For all of Foot's gadfly status, he had a sense of how politics was played that seems anathema to Corbyn, who rejects the metaphor of a game.

It will take some time to find out how this will play out. If Corbyn is another Foot, all we can look for at the next election is another 1983, or at best a vacuum like 2005, a weird election in which the voters rejected all the parties. But he could be just the rejuvenating figure a tired party that's lost its way needs.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

The NMCO is a difficult orchestra to schedule a review for because they don't believe in putting their season up on their website. I had thought they were just like some other community orchestras that only schedule one concert at a time, so I was surprised on attending last weekend's to find several upcoming concerts listed in the program book. They're just not on the website. (Still aren't now.)

I only found out about this one because I was checking all the Peninsula groups' websites to schedule my season's reviewing for the Daily Journal and came across NMCO's summer concert scheduled for the unusual date for a classical ensemble of the last weekend in August. This, I thought, will be my chance to go - I'd only heard the orchestra once previously, at their inaugural concert 3 years ago - and my editor jumped at the suggestion. Here you can read what I had to say about the lovely program of Copland and Barber. Barber's James Agee setting, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," is one of B's favorite works, and I can hear why: a perfectly emotionally balanced matching of words (this is prose, not verse) and music with the kind of intense pastoralism of VW's best. Here, listen to Dawn Upshaw singing it (this is the one I used to prepare for the concert):

Friday, September 4, 2015

Robert Commanday

It's my first editor in musical criticism whom I must report is gone from us today.

Robert P. Commanday started out as a choral conductor and then became the San Francisco Chronicle's fearless and caustic chief music critic in 1965. After he retired in 1993, the decreasing coverage of classical music in newspapers prompted him to do something about it, so with financial and administrative help from his friend Gordon Getty (wealthy philanthropist and amateur composer) and others, he founded the online reviewzine San Francisco Classical Voice, one of the pioneering institutions of its kind.

I was an early reader of SFCV. Bob, though then in his early 80s, was still the editor when I sent in a review in September 2004 of Symphony Silicon Valley's first concert in the restored California Theatre, a notable local event which they'd announced but hadn't covered. He liked it, he published it, they paid me, and they started requesting me to cover other concerts, and that's how I became a reviewer. He was very kind about my work, and I knew he wouldn't merely flatter. He was very good at recruiting staff, and he signed up Lisa Hirsch at about the same time.

While Bob was still in charge, editing was all about the proper technical description of the music. I remember a hurried e-mail conference we had over what type of strings a cellist I'd reviewed had used and how best to describe that in the review. This stuff had to be correct, and I learned to be on my toes when writing reviews and to practice intense listening at the concerts. Stylistic matters got scanted, and while I didn't have much trouble, some of the prose, and the spelling, in the journal could be pretty bad.

Since Bob stepped down, SFCV has gone through several regimes and changes in style. The editing is much more journalistic and less technically learned now, for better or worse. The nature of our coverage has not always earned Bob's favor, and disapproving comments from him would sometimes appear at the bottom of articles. I'll miss that.

What he really knew was what criticism was for. Many who read this will remember something that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote. She was talking about literature, but she used music as her comparison. "In art, the best is the standard. When you hear a new violinist, you do not compare him to the kid next door; you compare him to Stern and Heifetz. If he falls short, you will not blame him for it, but you will know what he falls short of. And if he is a real violinist, he knows it too. In art, 'good enough' is not good enough."

Where Le Guin was talking of the responsibility of the artist, Robert Commanday said the same thing, only speaking of the responsibility of the critic. Looking over his work on his retirement from the Chronicle, he wrote,
The standards I had held to were not set by me but by the works and the art form first and then by the artists and performing institution themselves. They also are measured by what we have come to expect of them and what they claim and aim to be. In that sense, evaluating is an act of respect. ... If we're tough, it’s because we care, which serves as the same basis for our enthusiasm and praise. It's the caring we share, not any particular opinions.
This is a credo I can stand by, and I'm proud to have taken it from his hands.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

oh, Mr. Kinsley

I was reading the Sept. 7 issue of The New Yorker while at the gym today, and it struck me as the most New Yorkery issue for a long while, embodying what makes that magazine both unique and sometimes exasperating.

There's the plus ça change editorial quoting Tom Watson in 1910 sounding like Donald Trump. There's the unfunny humor column. There's the long essays on potentially interesting topic (a Palestinian writer who's moved to the US in despair; policing in NYC; the economy of Atlantic City) that go on twice as long as any possible interest I could have in them; but above all is Dan Chiasson's review of a new book of Emerson's poetry.

Let us examine this remarkable document. It begins by discussing in detail the death of Emerson's 5-year-old son, telling for instance of 9-year-old Louisa May Alcott coming over to ask about him, to be told by Emerson, "Child, he is dead." (The boy's name was Waldo, and the article does not record, though it should, that young Louisa's words were "Where's Waldo?")

Then it quotes at perhaps 150 words length from an essay of Emerson's on grief, and then analyzes that for at least as long - remember, this is supposed to be a review of the poetry, and it's gone on for nearly a page without mentioning any - before finally seguing by saying that the essay "has a knife's-edge, emergency intensity that is nowhere to be found in Emerson's poems ..."

Thus not only a huge introduction divorced from the ostensible topics, and the twist which makes the ostensible topic of the article sound a lot less interesting than the one which only operated as a distraction.

The characteristics of New Yorkery were cataloged by Michael Kinsley in a 1984 article on the magazine: the crashing insignificance of the detail, the meandering. Kinsley describes a meeting with William Shawn, its long-time editor.
What, as an editor, did I think of it? Well, I said as tentatively as possible, I thought that some of the articles tended perhaps to go on a bit long ... One function of an editor, I recklessly opined, is to ask while reading a manuscript: "What's the point?"
"Oh, Mr. Kinsley," said Mr. Shawn piteously. He looked deeply wounded, as if I'd taken this thing called "the point" and run him through with it. Okay, so he didn't. I exaggerate. A bit.
Mr. Shawn is long gone, but if I knew how to reach Mr. Kinsley - he seems to be writing for a different publication every time I check on him, and has no website of his own - I'd like to inform him that I see that the Shawn spirit he describes lives on.

a little movie

Some people don't like Bill Bryson's writing: they find him grumpy. As I'm grumpy myself, I don't mind, as Bryson is only grumpy when it's appropriate: he's not whiny. I also find him very funny, as well as interested in the kinds of absorbing facts I'm interested in.

None of his books is funnier or more interesting than A Walk in the Woods, even though it's about something I have no interest in doing, walking the Appalachian Trail. So I was curious enough to go on the first day of release to see the movie adaptation of it, starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his old buddy and walking companion, Stephen Katz. Originally it was going to be made over 25 years ago with Paul Newman as Katz, to reunite that classic pairing, but Newman became too ill and it was shelved.

Making it now, with Redford and Nolte both in their seventies, turns the walk into a last-ditch bucket-list "staving off mortality" trip, and the script is - I suppose sensibly - written that way, rather than the "facing midlife crisis" of the book, where Bryson and Katz were both in their forties. This gives the movie a melancholic tone. It's less of the comedic romp it could have been.

It's also toned-down by subdued performances by both Redford and Nolte, and just about everybody else. They're just there, without much vividness. Redford has no animation; he's just kind of stone-faced, and the gnarly complexion of his age doesn't help. Nolte mutters and grumbles, but very gently. Only Emma Thompson as Bryson's concerned and slightly puzzled wife really seems to believe in her character. Kristen Schaal as the obnoxious fellow-hiker Mary Ellen was a stroke of casting genius, but Schaal doesn't seem to be all that much of an actress, at least not in this movie, nor does the script give her much to do with the character.

The plot basically follows the general outline of the first part of the book, the through-hike (though interrupted in the book) from Georgia to Virginia, but it's very much a warm-hearted buddy movie, editing out both almost all the friction between Bryson and Katz, and also much of the painful rigor of the trail. In the book, the weight of the packs is so burdensome that Katz throws out his favorite foods because he can't stand lugging them any more; the movie is so soft-minded that its Katz carries along a full bottle of whiskey just to prove that he's conquered his alcoholism and doesn't need to drink it. If, as a reader of the book, you were imagining anything with the bite of Sideways, forget it.

There's a few added plot points, like a scene of the most utterly chaste flirting imaginable between Redford and Mary Steenburgen as the owner of a roadside motel (is this a demonstration that a 60-year-old woman can have a sex life, or that she can't?), and one where Bryson and Katz get trapped on a cliff ledge, basically so that they can have a little heart-to-heart about the meaning of life.

Save it for home viewing, but don't expect either a date movie or a party movie. Gorgeous scenery, though: better than the book (Bryson was too focused on slogging through to look up much). The two settings that most impressed me are the vertiginous overlook near the end (it's McAfee Knob in southwest Virginia, which Bryson actually skipped) and the enormous dam the hikers walk across, which I've not seen an identification of.