Thursday, April 28, 2016

late review

B. and I put off seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens until we could see it on DVD for $1.50 the two of us. That's about what it was worth. Not nearly as boring as The Phantom Menace, but that's a very high barrier: it was more than tedious enough.

I was, at least, amused by the idea of a map showing the location of Luke Skywalker, as if he were a feature of the landscape, as indeed he appears to be when he's found. It'd have been livelier if the map had directed them instead to Skywalker Ranch.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Same guest conductor as last week, Pablo Heras-Casado, with another potpourri program, this one of works written within the last century.

Oldest on the program was Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, just short of its century, closely followed by Bartok's Dance Suite. Ravel's was an early work of the "neo-classical" (neo-Baroque would be a better term) movement, while Bartok's was a late outlier of the "primitivist" phenomenon of which Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is the best-known example, and one which the Bartok sounds rather like.

Curiously, in this performance it was the Bartok which came out all cute and charming in a neo-classical way, while the Ravel was made as brutalist as possible, which admittedly isn't very far.

Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony is in some ways his neo-classical work. It's generally thought of as the light and whimsical piece - "carnival squawks" is what the commissars said when they denounced it - that he wrote in lieu of a grand and triumphant WW2 victory march. But, like other Shostakovich works supposedly of a different mode, it has long stretches of mournful, depressing music in it, notably a long bassoon solo, here given all the emphasis it can get in a moving performance by Stephen Paulson. And then the finale that followed it was as cheeky as it could get. Composer of contrasts, that's our Mitya.

Lastly, a premiere: Auditorium by the inevitable Mason Bates. This music begins with that tired postmodern conceit, an orchestra tuning up - but it's repeatedly interrupted by a taped recording of a Baroque ensemble tuning up to a different pitch. But rather than clashing and arguing dissonantly, the music just switches gears calmly. The Baroque ensemble goes on to offer various snippets of appropriate pastiche music, and the desire to keep the live orchestra in some sort of sync with it keeps the piece from going too far off the rails. Interesting sonorities, and in keeping with the neo-whatsit theme of the evening.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hugo statistics

Anybody run statistics on the 2016 Hugo nominees yet?

If my hasty count is accurate, 38 Sad Puppy candidates made it on to the final ballot, including 13 of the 20 finalists in the fiction categories. But in many categories they had more than a slate's worth.

The Rabid Puppies did run a slate, although they denied calling that, and 62 of their 81 candidates made it on to the final ballot. A few were obvious loss leaders, but others were straight from the loony bin. As a person who attempted making nominations myself, but had few concrete suggestions as to what to vote for, I can confirm that a slate is still a powerful tool.

What about gender function in the fiction categories? Leaving aside the half-slot for "S. Harris" whom I know nothing about, 7 out of 20 were by women, 35%. That's not as high as in recent pre-Puppy years, but it's solid historically and much better than last year. Only 2 of 20, 10%, on the Rabid Puppy slate were by women.

Only 5 of 20 fiction nominees were not Rabid Puppies, and those 5 are all by women: Leckie, Jemisin, Novik, Okorafor, Bolander. Time to pull out No Award in Short Story again, I suspect.

from a restaurant review

There's two front doors, one to the restaurant and one to the bar, but you can't tell from outside which is which, and if you pick the wrong one, the only way to cross over is to sidle behind the maitre d' station (for which the maitre d' has to sidle out of the way). Acoustics are noisy, and the jazz playing in the background and the soft voices of the staff don't help. Apparently they can't hear you either. This happened more than once:

WAITRESS approaches my table.
WAITRESS: [unintelligible]
ME: What?
WAITRESS: [nods as if fully satisfied, goes away]

Monday, April 25, 2016


It was a blustery day on the Santa Barbara-Ventura coast this morning. When I opened the car door to get out at the harbor, the wind blew the handle right out of my hand.

No surprise, then, that the day's boat trips out to the Channel Islands were cancelled. This was of concern to me, as I was booked on one of them.

The phone message had said to call the agency's office back to rebook or obtain a refund, but I figured that since I was right there anyway, I might as well go in in person.

The first thing I asked when considering a rebooking was, How often do trips get cancelled? "Fairly frequently in the winter and spring because of storms and wind," they said. "It's fifty-fifty." That bad? I exclaimed. How about in the summer, then?

"That's fifty-fifty," they said.

Wait a minute, I said. Didn't you imply that spring trips were more likely to be cancelled than summer ones? Then how can they both be 50-50?

We went around on that a bit, and then I realized that when they said "fifty-fifty" they weren't giving odds. "It's like flipping a coin, fifty-fifty," they said, from context clearly taking "fifty-fifty" not as numbers but as some kind of rote phrase meaning "You can't predict in advance what's going to happen."

Well, I knew that. I wasn't asking for the prospects of a particular trip two weeks or two months out. I just wanted to know what kind of odds I was facing that I'd drive five hours and pay for a hotel room (so that I could be there at 8:30 AM for the boat trip) again only to face another cancellation.

So I told them that when you flip a coin, half the time it's heads and half the time it's tails. If heads means 'go' and tails means 'cancel,' then you're cancelling half the trips. Sorry, but that's what 'fifty-fifty' means.

Then I went concrete. How many trips have you had scheduled in April so far, and how many have been cancelled? They went and looked it up. The answer came to about 5%. That's much better odds, so I rescheduled.

But that's innumeracy for you. Using the phrase "fifty-fifty" to indicate the unpredictability of an event - which was not in response to the question I was asking - when the actual odds are about 5%.

Have you ever encountered this particular form of malcommunication?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

concert review: Fresno Philharmonic

Theodore Kuchar's last regular-season concert as music director. Judging from the schedule already released for next season, his imaginative and tempting programming will be retiring with him, rendering it less likely that I'll be coming out here in the future. But this one was worth the 3-hour drive.

It began with Dvorak's Biblical Songs, psalms set for soloist in a quasi-recitative style, quite unlike the massed choral strophes you usually get. The soloist was Kelley O'Connor, a mezzo (it says here, but I'm not sure I believe it) with an astonishingly deep and stately voice.

Then, the First Symphony by Kalinnikov, the world's first and best Tchaikovsky imitator. (What about Rachmaninoff?, you cry. Rachmaninoff doesn't sound like Tchaikovsky. He sounds like Borodin.) Kalinnikov sounds like Tchaikovsky with less blocky orchestration; his melodic sense in particular is very close. It's a great piece of music that I'd never heard live in a professional performance before, and this lean and intense performance was worth the trip.

So was Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev's gloriously raw and punchy film-music cantata, another piece great to hear but not often played. Despite the sizable forces, both instrumental and vocal, I missed a certain degree of monumentality in the work, but then Kuchar is a "slimming-down" conductor rather than a "bulking-up" one (see "lean and intense" above). The drama was fine, the rhythms excellent (I liked watching Kuchar using hand signals to count down bars before choral entrances), and the tone color astonishing, especially those hard metallic moments in the strings.

Friday, April 22, 2016

adventures in editing papers for a scholarly journal

It was the one-L Malory who wrote Morte d'Arthur. The two-L Mallory is the one who climbed Mount Everest.

(same author) Did you mean Keats, or Yeats?

(different author) Try not to take your citation page numbers from the mass-market paperback when the specified source is the original hardcover. They are different, you know.

(an even more different author) How about offering citation page numbers at all?

(a diligent author) Some scholars know that the MLA has discontinued the silly and ugly practice of requiring brackets around supplied ellipses. Most, however, don't. I slay them with glee.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Pablo Heras-Casado conducting a program from the "long 18th century."

Earliest work, Battalia by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, 1673. Weird multi-movement suite. One movement consists of a quodlibet on eight songs. Serious dissonance, teeth-grinding dissonance, Luciano Berio-style dissonance. In another, the string players are directed to tap the strings with the wood of their bows, col legno, which would produce an arachnoid sound. They didn't do that. They stomped their feet instead.

Rameau, suite from Pygmalion, 1748. Ornate, complex, the music that the word baroque was developed to describe.

Haydn, Piano Concerto in D, 1784. Yes, with a piano, not a harpsichord. Played by Ingrid Fliter with panache.

Beethoven, Symphony No. 2, 1802. Didn't they just do that? Didn't I review it? Didn't they record it? Regardless, after these predecessors this had to be a light, bouncy, fleeting performance, and was it ever.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

an Esmond Romilly bibliography

Romilly, Giles and Esmond. Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly. London: Hamilton, 1935.
Romilly, Esmond. Boadilla: A Personal Account of the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade. London: Hamilton, 1937.
Toynbee, Philip. Friends Apart: A Memoir of Esmond Romilly and Jasper Ridley in the Thirties. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1954.
Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. London: Gollancz, 1960.
----. Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Ingram, Kevin. Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.
Mitford, Jessica. Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, ed. Peter Y. Sussman. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Whitford, Meredith. Churchill's Rebels: Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. London: Umbria, 2014.

As an offshoot of my enthusiasm for the writings of Jessica Mitford, I found a passing interest in her first husband, Esmond Romilly. He was an interesting fellow. A journalist of precocious talent - he ran away from a prestigious English public school at 15 and founded a magazine for public school rebels (which won him some schoolboy acolytes, including another budding journalist, Philip Toynbee) - Esmond fought in, and then covered, the Spanish Civil War, and as a result of writing about both his sets of adventures became perhaps the only person ever to have published two autobiographies before the age of 20. (These I haven't read.)

Like several other young British intellectuals (Auden, Britten), Esmond left for the U.S. in 1939, along with his wife, Jessica (aka Decca), whom he'd eloped with on his second trip to Spain. But after Winston Churchill (who was his uncle, peculiarly enough) became Prime Minister the following year, Esmond felt it was now worthwhile to fight for the cause, so he joined the Canadian Air Force, but his plane was lost on a mission over the North Sea in November 1941. He was only 23.

His widow, stuck in America with a small child, stayed there, remarried, and became a late-blooming journalist herself, winning fame in her 40s. Her first book, Hons and Rebels, a memoir of her childhood and first marriage, was where I learned about Esmond. It's full of amusing stories about their elopement and their trip to America (among the lasting friends they made there was Katherine Graham, future publisher of the Washington Post), and more tragic ones like the death from TB of their first child. Decca's numerous relatives indignantly disavowed the book, but according to Meredith Whitford, latest researcher in the field, most of its eccentric stories are true, though sometimes edited, and they didn't live in quite the poverty and isolation Decca painted.

More details are available in a wonderfully readable and pellucidly edited collection of Decca's letters, including the heartbreaking tale, which she couldn't bear to recount herself, of her difficulty in accepting that Esmond was dead.

Decca had been inspired to write her memoir after reading the one by her and Esmond's old friend, Philip Toynbee. Decca and Philip were both egoistic people - you'd hardly publish a memoir if you're not - but Philip was self-centered to a degree denied to most people. His book is interesting, but it's mostly about him, and could have been subtitled How My Friends Colored My Life. Whitford depicts Philip as a great patsy whom Esmond could goad into misbehavior and who'd believe his tall tales.

For more about the two of them, there's the brief memoir of Philip that Decca wrote after his death. This provides a different perspective from a close observer. What it says about Philip is not as complimentary as Decca apparently thinks, but it does include this portrait of their time together.

Lastly there are two full biographies by outside journalists. Kevin Ingram's is entirely factual, in truth too factual, and rather dully written. I found myself skimming large wads of intense detail about Esmond's two periods of military service, and the book ends abruptly with his death.

Meredith Whitford's book is a joint biography of Esmond and Decca, and while she doesn't cover Decca's later life either, at least there's an epilogue to round the story off. The material on Decca and on the marriage comes mostly from Decca's memoirs and from various letters; this is not an oral history. Whitford places great faith in the accuracy and full coverage of contemporary letters. The material on Esmond has far more that'd be unknown to readers of the other books, and, as it's far more readable and less drowned in detail than Ingram's, I learned much more from it, especially on Esmond's childhood and personal background.

Whitford's problems are enormous chapter-length digressions onto other topics (though if you wish to learn about Esmond's brother Giles' experiences as a POW during WW2, that's here), and her political scene-setting is not always accurate. (Churchill's becoming PM was not due to Labour refusing to serve under Halifax, which they did not do.) But it is overall a good book, the one I'd recommend for an outside perspective.

I own copies of Decca's memoirs and her letters, but all the rest of these I got from libraries and didn't take notes, so I can't remember all of what was where. It must have been Philip Toynbee who wrote that he hardly felt he knew Decca at this time, because when she and Esmond were together he did all the talking and Decca was a wallflower (something that should surprise anyone who knew her in later life). But it couldn't have been Toynbee who reported that Virginia Durr, their host in D.C., initially had the same impression of Decca, until she blossomed after Esmond left for the Air Force. Did that come from Ingram? I can't remember. Certainly I was struck by the fact that Whitford says nothing about this impression either way; nor does she repeat Toynbee's anecdote that, after Esmond returned to England, he asked him what Decca thought of his leaving, to which Esmond replied that it was his decision alone.

Decca's own accounts depict herself as charmed by Esmond and in awe of his ingenuity (even when it ludicrously failed, as it often did), but not of herself as shadowed by him, and indeed she insists that they had at least one furious argument.

One curious thing Decca says in the introduction to the memoir of her later life, A Fine Old Conflict (New York: Knopf, 1977), is that, after Russia abruptly found itself on the Allied side in June 1941, she and Esmond decided to join the Communist Party. "Whether Esmond [then immediately off to England] ever did so, I do not know." What makes this curious is that neither Whitford, nor (unless I glazed over it) Ingram investigates this question at all. Nor does it fit with their pictures of Esmond's earlier political views. He comes across as a definitely anti-Communist leftist; unless his views had changed - which they could have - he would have considered the Party too flawed a vehicle to ride in pursuit of social justice, a goal to which Decca's devotion was so strong she was willing to overlook mountains.

I think there's room for more research here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Here's something I caught from Mark Evanier. It's a few clips from a recent concert performance of the musical 1776 in New York. No costumes, and multi-racial casting. I'm not sure how to parse a black person playing Richard Henry Lee, still less Martha Jefferson, but it certainly works for the Courier who sings "Mamma Look Sharp". But the performers do seem to be all very good. I'm actually glad I didn't know about this before it happened, because I would have felt frustrated at not being able to go.

For true fanatics, here's another chunk of some of the same clips but also some different ones. And a third set. And some cast/staff interviews.

Monday, April 18, 2016

I stayed home while my brother went to ...

... Ann Arbor, for the annual awards ceremony for the Michigan Daily, where was presented the first annual award in copyediting that we established in memory of our mother, once of the Daily editorial staff and all her life a demon copyeditor. Here he is, with his newly-minted beard, at the awards wall.

It would have been a great burden on my time to have attended, but he could make it, and I'm glad one of us could, especially as, this being the first one, he was asked to speak at the ceremony.

And while he was there, I was attending a memorial service in honor of a distinguished figure at our congregation, who taught a Torah study class that my mother had faithfully attended for years. So mitzvot were performed this weekend.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

concert review: Quartetto di Cremona

I desired this concert at Herbst primarily for the presence of a String Quartet in D by Respighi, a composer not usually thought of in terms of string quartets. And now I know why: it's an early work, in an accomplished but anonymous romantic-rhapsodic style, and except for a little in the finale is devoid of the crisp zest that characterizes Respighi's mature work.

That these players are interested in such dull corners was suggested by their encore, an Adagio (again with the very slow encores) likewise in an anonymous romantic-rhapsodic style, and likewise a very early and totally uncharacteristic work of the composer, this one being Webern. Listening to very early Romantic Webern is like listening to very early hearty Americanist Elliott Carter. The mature work may be repellent, but at least it's distinctive, individual, characteristically him. This early work isn't anybody.

Further anonymity was provided by a strange performance of Beethoven's Op. 131. Nominally in 7 movements, it's actually a single unbroken wad of music with abrupt mood changes. Rather than the movements sliding stealthily or arrestingly morphing into each other, in this performance it was like simply switching the view to a different facet. At the same time, the mood was unchanged throughout. No manic roughness or towering anguish; the Cremona performance was all cool, calm, collected. And rather dull: in particular the repetitions never gave any sense of saying something different than they had the first time, and thus became superfluous and rather irritating.

An early Boccherini quartet was more amenable to this approach, and benefited from a dry, steely playing style, but again the movements felt like facets and not like we were anywhere different.

Friday, April 15, 2016

concert preview

Redwood Symphony wanted me to review their concert for tomorrow night, but I can't make it, so I wrote a preview article instead. I enjoyed pulling in information from various sources, including the offhand line in an e-mail from the conductor that they'll be beginning next season with a semi-staged version of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. I've never seen that, but I won't be available to go then either.

I also packed the article with reference to a bunch other upcoming concerts of interest, several of which I also won't be able to attend.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

day of wend

I wended my way to Stanford's library to do research on the annual Tolkien bibliography, the third of about seven libraries I'll need to visit for this purpose, not counting the ones I got to virtually through inter-library loan.

Stanford's rule is that off-campus visitors may use the library for any seven days of their choice in a year's period following the date of registration. This is kept track of by a computer whose terminal is at the entrance. It used to be that when you registered, if you tried to use the same password you used the previous year, the system would crash. Last time this happened, I told them that since Stanford is supposed to be such a great comp-sci school, birthplace of Google Cisco et al, it ought to be able to come up with something better than that.

It has. No more passwords. Instead you identify yourself by placing a driving license or a passport on a scanner, tell the machine via a drop-down list which entity issued it so the scanner knows where to look, and it copies your name and address into the system. Except that the scanner's idea of which way ought to be up was the opposite of mine, pretty cool.

Stanford's library, despite its miles of stacks, has long since run out of shelving space. So have the warehouses on the other side of campus established for overflow. Now overflow books are shelved in a new facility 40 miles away. You have to order the books online and it can take up to 2 days for them to appear, though they will e-mail you to tell you they've arrived. (You then have a week before they send them back.)

In literary studies, at least, it's the new books that are sent off to storage. Of 12 items on my check list, 9 had to be ordered. I brought a canvas shopping bag to haul them upstairs where the study carrels are. (As at most college libraries, visitors can't check things out: this is all for in-house use only.)

While I was there, I also took the opportunity to read one of the reasons Stanford's book holdings are so large: Churchill's Rebels by Meredith Whitford, a biography of Esmond Romilly - in whom I have some interest - that's so rare that Stanford is one of only two libraries in the three more western time zones of North America to have it, and the other is the University of Alberta. More on that later.

It was also a day for a noon concert from the students of the Music Department, so I took the time to wander over there for that too. Four student cellists, and not one of them very good. Usually the student concerts are better than this. And the best of them was playing (with piano accompaniment) a movement from the Lalo Concerto, a work requiring tremendous bravura that even a halfway-decent student cellist is not equipped to provide. Anemic.

Afterwards, something new for me. Ever since I hit 300 reviews (mostly of restaurants) on Yelp a couple years ago - reviews I put there to avoid inflicting you with very many of them - I've been getting pinged with invitations from Yelp management to special events. Most of them don't look much up my alley, but this one did: a dinner-time tasting meal at a tiny yuppie-fusion semi-Indian restaurant that's located, better luck yet, in a shopping center just off the Stanford campus. So I signed up and went. There were eight of us plus the Yelp manager who keeps writing me, whom I thus finally met. I was by far the oldest person there, and about the only one not snapping smartphone pictures of my meal. The enthusiastic owner regaled us with a ten-minute lecture on his restaurant's background and culinary philosophy and then a running commentary on the ingredients and preparation of each and every one of the fourteen dishes we were served tiny cups of, but his enthusiasm was infectious, the commentary was illuminating, and, sure enough, the food ranged from the merely quite tasty to the extremely good. We were provided with menus with space to write notes on, and I threw down my pen in astonishment at finding carrots and beets so carefully cooked that even I liked them. This has never happened before. Of course I went home and wrote a review, because that's what Yelp is for, right?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I could not miss the opportunity to be an auditor to a local event consisting of an hour's conversation with Philip Glass, could I? No, I could not.

The event was evidently intended to promote Glass's annual September arts festival down in Carmel Valley, the Days and Nights Festival. I'd heard of this, but had never gone. Maybe this year I will, especially as the organizers promised to send everyone in the audience a reminder e-mail.

Festival staff photographer Arturo Bejar interviewed Glass about the Festival and a lot of other things. And, luckily for us, Glass agreed to go to a handy piano and play a piece of his music. At one point Glass mildly balked on being asked to tell the audience a story he'd just recounted to Bejar in private. Bejar: "Objection to repetition? From you?" Glass: "Wise guy."

The story was one of many things that illustrated Glass's artistic principles, which amount to a curious, receptive spiritual/emotional response to art. He said to always ask composers or other music writers, "Where does the music come from?" You'll always get an answer, and it may not be what you expect. Glass practices a restless career of collaboration with musicians from a wide variety of traditions, taking sometimes days of work together to find a mutual groove, but it's always worthwhile. (He likes music different from his own, for why should he want to listen to someone else be him?) When he asks, he gets answers like, "My grandfather fire has no tongue, so when he wishes to speak, he does so through me." Ravi Shankar just pointed to the photo of his guru that he kept by his bedside. Glass's own answer? "Music is a place, like Chicago or Indianapolis. A good musician goes there, and can take you along."

Glass said that, whether in collaborating or composing a solo piece, "the best thing to do is not to know what to do." Because then what you end up doing will be new. If you know what to do, you'll just do what you've done before. "Does that make sense?" he asked anxiously. (Of course, there are those who'd say Glass himself has just done the same thing over and over for a half century, but those are the people who aren't listening very closely.)

But what he said that most resonated with me was: "The ground zero of music is the emotions." This ties in with what I call Keller's Law, which is what my friend DGK, and I in his footsteps, are always telling people who call us too analytical: Emotional response to music comes first; it's what music is for. Intellectual analysis comes afterwards, and there's no point in analyzing music you didn't respond to emotionally first. The opposite of Glass is Augenmusik, work that exists to be analyzed on the page by the eye and whose construction is undetectable by the ear.

Glass's approach is one that hasn't gotten much favor, and still attracts scorn in some quarters. He pointed out that, despite his sterling credentials - Juilliard graduate, student of Nadia Boulanger - he spent years earning his living as a plumber, driving a cab, moving furniture. "I was offered my first teaching job when I was 72. I turned it down. They said it's never too late. I said oh yes it is!"

He had to leave (for a red-eye back to New York, ugh), but the mutual friends (Chip and Janice) who'd alerted me to this event introduced me to Arturo, and the four of us went out for Chinese and a wide-ranging conversation over music, photography, computers. This is something I don't get to do very often. I'm usually at home listening to music by Philip Glass, as I am now.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beverly Cleary, centenarian

Today is Beverly Cleary's centenary, and she's still around to celebrate it. Time to reminisce.

I first read most of her books in my teens and 20s, already far older than the target audience. But I liked them, and still do. My first encounter was with Henry Huggins, but I found myself identifying more with Ramona Quimby. I wasn't much of a Henry-like boy - in particular I didn't have a dog, and didn't want one, while Ramona had a cat - but I could see myself in Ramona. Ramona was a little girl who wanted very much to be good but didn't know how, and often got in trouble for trying. That really resonated with my earlier childhood. I liked the way Ramona grows up, a year at a time in each book, from 4 to 10, her character carefully calibrated by the author for each book, and the spaces and changes between them diligently accounted for. I liked, also, the way that Ramona's personal problems interact with her family's issues, principally monetary concerns. They're serious, thoughtful books, fully mature for the age each portrays, and with appealing characters.

Cleary started out as a children's librarian, did you know that? At the age of about 65, she paid a visit to her library school alma mater at the University of Washington. I was a student there then, and came with all the other students to hear her give a talk. What she said amounted to "Don't forget the children!" I've tried not to. I did get to introduce myself to her as a fan.

Decades later, I was cheered by the look of awe on the face of a young girl (daughter of friends) when, seeing a Ramona book in her hands, I told her that I'd actually met Beverly Cleary. Matched only, some years earlier, by the look of awe on the face of a young nephew when I told him that I'd met Bruce Coville. (I'd been on a panel with him at some con.)

Here's an article on Cleary's teen girl novels, which I haven't read. But, as the article points out, they work on the same principles as the Ramona books, just as appropriately changed for a later stage of growth into maturity.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Lord Chamberlain regrets

The Lord Chamberlain Regrets: A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson, and Miriam Handley (British Library, 2004)

For over 200 years, if you wanted to put on a play in public in the UK, the script had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, primarily an obscure royal courtier but one who had also mysteriously been saddled with this peculiar task. Lines deemed obscene or blasphemous were regularly edited out, and plays that lampooned distinguished living persons or had plots that were sufficiently risqué were not allowed on stage at all.

I've read much about this quaint practice from the p.o.v. of dramatists and theatre companies. Here's a history from the other side of the table. For much of this period, the Lord Chamberlain, who had other things to do with his time, devolved the research part of his duties to a subordinate officer called the Examiner of Plays. The Examiner would read each submitted play, and write up a report and recommendation to submit to the Lord Chamberlain for a final decision, and it's these reports, on file at the British Library, which form the basis of this study.

The principal examiner through the 1950s and 60s was a man named Charles Heriot, of whose background the text says nothing, though I've learned online that he was an actor himself, and whose reports I find bewilderingly charming. Bewildering, because he ventured far beyond his censor's remit to make sweeping critical judgments of the plays he read, and charming, because he often wrote the kind of evaluation I'd love to see in published reviews but rarely do, of the kind of tiresome modernist plays that I've left with the feeling "Why did I subject myself to this pretentious bombast?" Here's Heriot on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
Once again, Mr. Williams vomits up the recurring theme of his not-too-subconscious. This is the fourth play (and there are sure to be others) where we are confronted by the gentlewoman debased, sunk in her private dreams as a remedy for her sexual frustration, and over all the author's horror, disgust and rage against the sexual act.
And on The Birthday Party:
An insane, pointless play. Mr. Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly. The Emperor is wearing no clothes.
Burn, baby, burn! Although it's worth noting that, apart from advising that a few lines be cut, the reader recommended approving both these plays for performance.

But by far the most interesting comment I saw was a note appended to the report on Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956). This work is more of a major landmark in modern British intellectual history than it is a famous play. As the keystone event of the "Angry Young Man" literary movement, its premiere got a strong response discussed in detail in many books about the period, but always with a weird absence of description of the actual play itself. Curious, I once decided to see it for myself. I don't like reading unfamiliar plays in text form, but I found a tape of a tv performance starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, back when they were still a couple, as Jimmy and Alison, the married pair who are the central characters. Surely, if anybody could communicate the meaning of this play, they could.

They couldn't. I could make little sense of the plot or motivations. Jimmy and Alison are living a proletarian life in a working-class flat in Birmingham or somewhere, despite having more privileged family backgrounds, that much was clear. Jimmy spends most of the play standing around ranting about something or other, I could not figure out what. He seems just inchoately angry at the world. Much of his standing around ranting is done without his trousers on, because Alison spends most of the play ironing either Jimmy's trousers or his friends' trousers. It wasn't clear either why she's obsessed with ironing trousers or why it takes her so long. They may just both be thunderously bored; I know I was.

Anyway, Heriot's report offers a more clear and succinct summary of the plot than anything I've seen in serious literary studies, and concludes with this strange little footnote:
The prototypes of Jimmy and Alison may be Giles Romilly and his wife. Romilly was killed in the war and his biography was sketched in a book called "Friends Apart" by Philip Toynbee, published in 1954.
Now this interested me. First it was clear that Heriot miswrote himself and meant not Giles Romilly but his brother Esmond. Giles was still alive in 1956. Esmond is the one who was killed in the war and is the subject of Philip Toynbee's memoir. (Not that the book in hand takes note of this confusion.) But what really made it interesting to me is that Esmond's wife was Jessica Mitford, the one of the famous Mitford sisters who became a Communist, moved to America, and ended up as Queen of the Muckrakers, author of The American Way of Death and the exposé of the Famous Writers' School. She's one of my favorite writers, and would certainly make my top five on the list that Gay Talese couldn't think of a single name for, along with Molly Ivins, Ursula Le Guin, maybe Nora Ephron, and probably Diana Wynne Jones.

But nothing that I've read about Decca (as she was called) and Esmond, or about John Osborne for that matter, gave any indication that the couple were in any way models for the play. True, they came from privileged backgrounds (Esmond was Clementine Churchill's nephew, and Decca the daughter of a lord) which they gave up to run off and cover the Spanish Civil War and later to live in genteel poverty on the south side of London, but that's as far as the parallel goes. Jimmy is undirected and wasting his life; he's abusive to Alison, scornful of her pregnancy, and has an affair with her best friend. None of this is remotely like Esmond as I've read of him. Decca, by her own account, was a hopeless housekeeper, so no obsessive ironing, and she absolutely rejected Alison's secret desire to reunite with her family; Decca's family were mostly notable fascists, and she wanted to keep well away. In any case, Osborne's knowledge of Esmond and Decca's life, if he had any at all, was likely to have been second-hand, as he was under ten years old when they were in London.

So I found Heriot's connection implausible at best. Puzzled, I consulted two experts in the field - Peter Y. Sussman, editor of Decca's letters (a marvelous book titled simply Decca), and Meredith Whitford, author of a biography of Esmond and Decca (Churchill's Rebels, which I haven't read yet but I'm on my way to get it) - and neither of them put any credibility in it either. So I'm going to dump this note as a curiosity with probably no further significance.

Theatrical censorship in the UK was ended in the late 1960s, as part of a brief wave of civilization that also brought the decriminalization of homosexuality. One thing the book doesn't mention is that the Lord Chamberlain of the day, whenever for the rest of his life he ran into the Home Secretary who'd been responsible for initiating the change, thanked him profusely for having relieved him of this onerous duty.

Friday, April 8, 2016


In Luann, which is currently the most interestingly-plotted comic strip that my newspaper carries, the college-age Luann is preparing for a trip to New York with a couple similarly-aged friends, and her parents are fretting about this first non-parentally-supervised trip and reminiscing about their own.

I suppose mine depends on precise definitions.

When I was as young as 8, I was taking full-day trips by bicycle to explore the rugged hills near our home. My parents let me do this because they knew I wouldn't get lost (I was an assured map-reader even then) and could be relied on to be home by dinner. My mother would pack me a bag lunch.

How about a little farther away?

I was all of 15 when my parents packed me on a plane by myself and sent me off to visit my grandparents. We were actually on a cross-country vacation at the time, and I missed the last leg, which was fine: by that point in the trip, spending another week cooped up in the motor home with three little brothers had lost its appeal. This was the trip when my grandfather took me on a private tour of the brewery for which he was the leading distributor, with the president of the brewery as our guide; fortunately I was too young to partake of the product and have to pretend I liked beer.

Overnight without parental supervision?

That depends if college dorms count. I moved into one at 18.

How about without any in loco parentis at all?

That would be when I was 19 and started attending science-fiction conventions. For my first, I took a bus the 40 miles to the City where a friend who lived there picked me up and drove the remaining 80 miles or so to Sacramento where Mythcon was. Another friend drove me back. Several other group expeditions followed, some involving me driving, but the longest was a large group expedition to a Westercon in Vancouver by train.

My first big totally solo trip that I can recall was to Britain at the age of 22. I attended the Worldcon in Brighton but I did many other things, and drove as far as North Wales and Yorkshire. Surely this wasn't the first time I rented a car, but I can't think offhand of when before I might have done so.

The year after that I moved to Seattle for grad school, and the following year acquired my first car entirely of my own, as opposed to an extra parental car for which I had privileges, and since then all my traveling has been of my own making.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

not much out of ten

So after much travail I have a new computer. I still don't have access to my e-mail files, apparently because Outlook Express, my old client which no longer exists, made it essentially impossible to export files into any other format, something I would have thought would have been illegal, or - more to the point - immoral by the time that program was created. But apparently not.

During my enforced downtime I had been reading an old story in which young people sit around complaining about how romantic relationships never work. It isn't that anyone wants them to dysfunction, they just do. I never felt that way about romantic relationships, but it sure does sound familiar regarding my relationships with computers. Why are they so difficult and why, whenever I get a new version of something, is it so hard to find my way around? I spent far more time than I should have trying to find the desktop button in Windows 10, or, for that matter, the bookmarks pulldown window in my new copy of Firefox.

Worst of all is that about a third of the Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen is now taken up by a box reading "Ask me anything." I investigated this and it didn't take long to recognize. Oh, the stupid icon is gone, and it's not chasing you around the screen any more. But it's the paper clip come back again. I knew it of old. You can't fool me. I can't figure out where in it to type my question, but that would be my first question, and my second would be, How can I make you go away?

And a lot of other things, and I've barely started. This is why I put off getting a new computer for so long, because the process of transferring your life is so tiring and time-consuming; and why I went for the latest version of Windows even though I'm told Windows 7 (which yes, they still sell) might suit my style better: to put off for as long as possible the next time I have to do this.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

avoiding pseudo-historical anachronisms

For reasons which I trust will remain sufficiently obscure, I have been in need of verifying whether Tolkien had settled on a particular character name (e.g. Sauron, who went through quite a variety of forms and identities before settling down) or invented or adopted a particular term (e.g. Middle-earth, which he didn't start using until well into the writing of The Lord of the Rings) by a particular date.

The ideal source for this is the single-alphabetization compiled index to the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, one of my most useful reference volumes; unfortunately for this purpose, Christopher Tolkien indexed his editorial references indistinguishably from the uses of the same terms in his father's texts. So seeing that a name appears in, say, vol. 4 doesn't mean JRRT had started using it yet; I have to look up the individual page references to tell for sure, though sometimes their sheer number or character provides a clue.

I am still without a computer. (See earlier entry.) Consequently you are not reading this; it does not exist.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Oregon whatchamacallit Festival

Attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this early in the season meant that only one of the five Shakespeare plays they're putting on this year had opened yet. This was Twelfth Night, in a wholly delightful production. Not as maniacally fast-paced as some of their recent Shakespeare comedies, it was nevertheless full of high spirits and warm cheerfulness from actors who knew what they were about and not just spouting off Elizabethan verse without comprehension. Particular highlights: The incredulity of Cesario (Sara Bruner) on realizing that Olivia is in love with him (Act II, Scene ii). The duel between the terrified pair of Cesario and Sir Andrew (Danforth Comins), which was extremely extended and highly amusing, ending with them fencing with lilies and a sofa pillow. Malvolio's final exit: instead of the usual furious denunciation which leaves a sour taste at the end, Ted Deasy smilingly seemed to accept his tormenters' "bygones be bygones" attitude as he headed offstage, then turned at the door to deliver, almost casually and offhandedly but with hidden menace, his famous final line, "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you."

The elaborate and impressive costumes and the sketchy, almost non-existent sets were taken from 1930s Hollywood, a setting treated as completely detached from anything else going on, until it paid off at the end in two ways: the use of a kind of film negative screen to create the illusion that Viola and Sebastian were on stage simultaneously when they were played by the same actor, and Feste's final song, which was turned into an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style tap-dance production number featuring almost the whole company. We left with a song in our hearts, and that was the song.

Of the other three plays we saw, by far the best was The River Bride, a short one-act premiere by Marisela Treviño Orta. Set "once upon a time in a small Brazilian village along the Amazon River," it attracted our interest by a blurb description of it as a fairy tale. And it is that ... a fairy tale in which the supernatural element enters in a quite subversive and sly manner and then dominates the action. But more than that it's a story of romantic love: how you know that you've found true love, and what happens when you settle for something less. But if I had to pick one over-riding theme for this play, it would be sisterly rivalry. The author, though young and inexperienced, is superb at characterization, as I realized when I tried summarizing the plot (which I'm not going to do here), and found I had to keep going back and adding in character points that had been revealed earlier. This show was fantastic in both sense of the word. If it were a novel written with the excellence with which this play was composed and performed, I'd nominate it for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award like a shot.

A new adaptation of Great Expectations (a novel I've never read) professed itself faithful to Dickens' story, which I guess is why it was long and meandering. As Dickens was writing a novel, not a play, he observed no theatrical unities, so rather than build a dozen rotating sets, the play did basically without any sets, performed on a bare stage with occasional props. The costumes, however, were, like those for Twelfth Night, superb. A costuming fan could come to Ashland for the clothes alone, and leave feeling satisfied. The main problem for me with this play was, I guess, inherent in Dickens rather than the fault of the adaptation: while most of the other characters seem almost excessively fond of Pip, I could see no reason why I should care anything about this self-centered weasel at all, and even less about his hideous girlfriend. This wasn't the fault of the actors playing them, OSF newcomers Benjamin Bonenfant and Nemuna Ceesay, who were strong and purposeful, though the young actor playing the juvenile Pip lacked shading. In general I found it pretty tedious, a reaction I've had to Dickens before.

Something that claimed to be Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard would be better described as a free fantasia based on themes from the original. The setting was changed (to the jail in some Wild West town), the characters were changed (some dropped or merged or even killed off, and others added to replace them, or their sexes changed), the plot was condensed down to 80 minutes, and whereas most G&S adaptations play freely with Gilbert's lyrics but leave Sullivan's music alone, this one mauled the music (into old-time C&W, sometimes unrecognizably so) more than the words. A few songs sounded pretty good this way, notably "I Have a Song to Sing, Oh", but mostly not. The one addition I did like was having Fairfax (Jeremy Johnson, the cast member who most conspicuously couldn't sing) constantly forget that he's impersonating Leonard Meryll, and look blank when he's addressed as such until suddenly remembering, jumping and exclaiming "Yes! I am Leonard Meryll!" I think that Jack Point was changed into Jan Point purely so that she and Elsie could bill their act as The Point Sisters; you may groan now.

The show was given in the tiny third theater, and the strangest aspect involved the seating. We were in the regular seats, fortunately, but there was also provision for audience members on stage. Supposedly they were to walk around and interact with the actors, but there were so many of them this would have been impractical, and although they were permitted to get up and move and a few did, and occasionally an actor would draw one into the action briefly, they mostly sat tightly wedged on the edges of the wooden platforms onstage, scurrying out of the way like cockroaches whenever an actor indicated a need to pass through a particular spot, and then scurrying back again afterwards. The only thing this added to the play was to enable more people to fit in the theater to see it, though I'm doubtful what the fire marshal would have said about this. In general, however funny it may have seemed at moments, this adaptation was a complete disaster the likes of which I hope will never be seen again.

So, after a long period in which their Shakespeare tended to be routine or ill-conceived, and their modern period work was their best suit, in the last few years OSF has recovered its status as a great Shakespeare company, and it's the other work which is hit or miss.