Monday, December 31, 2018

the annual year-end post

Some days I'm up early because of sleeping poorly. Today I'm up early because B. awoke me. The tire pressure light had gone on on her car, and since refilling it isn't in her skill set and she wouldn't have time on the way to work anyway, she needed me to clean out anything I needed from my car before she took that to work. Really, I'm going to have to start taking the cars in to the air station regularly, since tires need reflating long before they get to the warning-light stage.

So, visit to the gas station with free air is on my list of errands for the day, once the big light in the sky turns on. That's not enough of a trip to merit inclusion in my annual list of cities I've stayed in away from home:

Los Angeles, CA
Great Falls, MT
Dillon, MT
Salmon, ID
Missoula, MT
Butte, MT
Hillingdon, England
Oxford, England
Ashland, OR
Atlanta, GA
San Jose, CA
San Diego, CA
Seattle, WA

That comes to two conventions (Mythcon and Worldcon, both with B.), one convention planning session, two trips for concerts or plays (both also with B.), one trip for a museum exhibit (in England!), and two vacations for the heck of it. All my stays were in hotels except for Oxford, where I stayed in a rental house with a fiberglass shark embedded in the roof.

In writings, I co-edited another volume of the journal Tolkien Studies, and contributed a bibliography and part of "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" therein. Elsewhere, I wrote a memorial appreciation of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin for Mythlore at the request of the editor, and published an essay on Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major in a festschrift for Verlyn Flieger.

I had 38 concert reviews professionally published this year, probably a record, not counting two musical articles in the same venues and one CD review.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

the millennium has arrived

It's just that, for the first time in its history, the comic Pearls Before Swine has produced today a strip that's actually funny, that actually made me laugh. First time a newspaper comic has done that since Dilbert's heyday, and that was a while ago.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

whatever happened to ...?

The link on the blog page read Steve Jobs hired a career juggler to teach programming to developers.

I clicked out of curiosity, not suspecting that I'd be more familiar with the juggler than with Steve Jobs.

But it's true: It was Randy Nelson, "Alyosha" from the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

I first saw the FKB in 1977, when they were playing regularly at the Magic Cellar, a small magic club in San Francisco where my friends would hang out. They were all fans of the Karamazovs, too, and we would make group expeditions whenever they played locally for over a decade. (The full show of which the embedded flaming torch clip is part 8 is a good record of their standard stage show at that date, 1983.)

After Randy dropped out of regular appearances, I understood he'd gotten a job in the computer industry somewhere, but I never heard details or that it came about because Steve Jobs was an FKB fan. It's puzzling to me, because, being in Silicon Valley, I know a lot of people in the industry. I never met Jobs myself, but I know people who knew both him and the Karamazovs, and I don't recall any of them mentioning any of this.

So it's great to hear that distinctive voice again, even though instead of telling knockabout jokes it's discoursing seriously in an embedded clip on intelligent if rather alarming personnel practices. And to wonder how that applies to Pixar of today, for B. and I just watched their latest product, Incredibles 2, and I have to wonder. I love the characters of the Incredibles: all five are distinctive and fascinating people. But why are they embedded in such a dull and predictable plot?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


So what did we get for Christmas? I'm hard to shop for, so I got a DVD on Churchill and a canister of candied popcorn from B., and tendonitis from an anonymous giver. The cats (by courtesy) got us a few things, including the annual wall calendar. Usually our choice features photos of cats, big cats, or penguins, but 2018's was one of medieval illuminations we found in the DeYoung Museum gift store at the end of the previous year. This year, animal calendars were short on the ground where I looked, and I found one of reading-themed illustrations by Mary Engelbreit. The cover shows a girl perched, I hope not too precariously, in some high tree branches, reading a book whose distinctive jacket design reveals it to be The Hobbit. So, can't miss.

This will probably be the last year that B's family gathers in the old family homestead, as her brother and his wife, who are currently rattling around in it after the departure of all their children, are planning on selling it and moving up to Seattle where their grandchildren are. At least we had a festive gathering, enlivened in particular by the burgeoning family of the niece from Fresno. I asked her eldest, the ten-year-old, about the school play her parents' holiday letter had said she'd be in come spring. What's the play? Treasure Island, she said. I thought rapidly for anything I knew about Treasure Island, a book I've never read, having bounced off it in childhood. (I also bounced off of Hornblower, much to my navy-veteran father's dismay. This was before the fame of Patrick O'Brian, whom I did not bounce off of until a considerably later date.) "The one with the pirates?" I said, and earned compliments for my familiarity with Treasure Island.

As my contribution to dinner I brought the veggies in the form of a rice casserole, but little of it got eaten, so dinner at home for us for the next few days is set.

Back to making hooting noises as I wrap the dashed cold ice-pack around the hand I'm trying not to type with. See you later.

Monday, December 24, 2018

rabbits of the uncanny valley

I've just spent three hours that I'm not going to get back watching the newly-released miniseries adaptation of Watership Down on Netflix. Here we have, once again, a book I cherish adapted into a movie I can't imagine wanting to see again.

Visually, it's disastrous. The computer animation has attempted realism instead of cartoons, but has only achieved that creepy almost-realism known as the Uncanny Valley. Some of the rabbits look like Bunnicula, others resemble stuffed toys. Few of them are distinctive enough to enable me to distinguish groups of Watership Down rabbits from groups of Efrafans, which makes the lengthy confrontation and battle scenes rather confusing. The camera angles seem inordinately fond of rabbit butts. The other animals aren't much better: the farmyard dog looks more like a pig.

As the plot got under way, I began to wonder if it had been adapted by Peter Jackson, as the flaws of his Tolkien adaptations were so lovingly replicated. The rabbits' crossing of the Enbourne is encouraged by the entire Sandleford Owsla at their heels, as so many moments from Tolkien were beefed up in those movies by turning them into superfluous chase scenes. What this tendency becomes when they get to Efrafa is almost indescribable. The plot is entirely rewritten, not to its benefit. The rescue of the does in particular is concocted by throwing out almost everything that was in the book - including the complete disappearance of the boat, which was the best part - taking care to make its replacement as boring, tedious, confusing, and repetitious as possible. It's not quite as awful as Jackson's Hobbit, but it deserves at least a (dis)honorable mention in that category. Some specific scenes - the destruction of the Sandleford warren, Bigwig's final confrontation with Woundwort - work pretty well, but not enough to be cherishable.

Efrafa itself is no longer an ordinary warren at a bridlepath crossing, but rendered into a sinister hellmouth by being placed in the basement of some abandoned human industrial buildings. The rabbits' relationship to human things is peculiar. In the scene of rescuing the hutch rabbits from the farm, the raiding rabbits actually enter the farmhouse, for no apparent reason. Later on, Fiver actually ventures into heavy automotive traffic that's waiting for a bridge opening, for even less reason unless it's as a clumsy foreshadowing of how he (not Hazel) is rescued from the farm cat by the farm girl and driven home in a car. Describing this, he calls her a "little girl". Little? She's twenty times his size! This brings us to the lousy and imperceptive dialogue: droopy emotionalism, noble sentiments from the book rephrased into mush, words that I can't imagine Adams' rabbits using (sometimes turned into a joke by having other rabbits saying they don't understand them), and exact quotes from the book used in ways that show the screenwriters didn't understand it. Most glaring of these is the final moment of the show, as Bluebell (not Dandelion or Vilthuril) starts to tell the young-uns the story of Hazel-rah and his rag-tag band, and quotes exactly, word for word, the opening sentences of the book. Which are all scene-description, not plot, and the use of which utterly ignores Adams' quite brilliant evocation of the mythologizing process, in which real events are reworked, dropped into the cauldron of story, and re-emerge as tales of El-ahrairah. Not that we ever get to hear any tale, except the opening myth, in full, same way that Jackson is reluctant to let us hear full Tolkien poems.

There is asperity and conflict among the heroes in the book, but mostly it's a tale of cooperation among skilled specialists. Which again the movie undercuts, by turning the characters grouchy and uncooperative for most of the movie, and their plans into haphazard whiffle. The resemblance of this to the truly awful parts of J-Frodo and J-Sam's journey to Mordor is quite remarkable.

The one change I thought almost worked was the attempt to beef up the role of females in the plot. Strawberry is changed to a doe, though a chatty and goofy one (I guess a role abandoned by Bluebell when they turned him into Dandelion). Various subplots of romantic pair-bonding fit in reasonably well, though the scenes themselves are often wincingly embarrassing. But it's odd when the hutch rabbit Clover, who in the book is timid and hesitant due to her captive upbringing, not only takes the place of Blackberry in knowing how to open the hutch, but is the one to reach Hazel after he's shot. How dashingly noble of her. It all turns out to be for foreshadowing so that she and Hazel can pair-bond later.

And immediately after being with Hazel, she's captured by scouts from Efrafa. WTF? They're on the far side of Watership Down from Efrafa, but the bad guys are everywhere. In fact, the movie inserts a scene of Woundwort (Ben Kingsley at his most implacable: most of the other voice actors are over-earnest and rather breathless, except for Peter Capaldi as Kehaar who is at his most stage-Scottish) ordering the capture of the heroes as soon as they arrive at Watership Down. He already knows they're there! This is like J-Saruman tracking the Fellowship over Caradhras with his palantir. It reduces the epic scope of the story to the scale of a tabletop role-playing game.

Well, look, I know the adapters can do what they want. But by the same token I can say what I think, which is: ugh.


So why are we getting articles and follow-up about Stan Freberg's commercial satire "Green Christmas", but nobody's mentioning Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Carol" or Allan Sherman's "Twelve Gifts of Christmas"?

Friday, December 21, 2018

poorhouse in the village

When Google announced that it was acquiring land in the scattered industrial/commercial/residential zone west of downtown San Jose for a future Google village, I looked at the little maps in the paper nervously, because my favorite local restaurant, the Poor House Bistro, is located in a converted house right in the middle of that territory.

Next time I was there, I asked the counter clerk what their status was. "We're safe: we own the building," she said. Apparently they don't own the land, though, or not any more, for here's a report that the land has been sold to Google.

The owner sounds confident about remaining, though: they have a long-term lease. At least, an expiration of 2021 sounds impressively far off, but it's actually only 2 or 3 years.

Will Google keep it around after the redevelopment? If not, I'll have something else to be annoyed with Google about.


1. The last adult has left the building. (You know which building. It has an oval-shaped room in it.) Oh dear.

2. Alex Ross is trying to convince us that György Kurtág is a good composer. No he isn't.

3. Pippin's internal clock, the one he uses to determine when it's time to be fed, runs fast, and one thing he knows: when I'm home, he's to be fed before B. comes home from work. Recently she came home early, and he hadn't been fed, so he expressed his displeasure by thinking outside the box. As B. put it, he'd converted from Catholic to Episscopalian.

4. A few days earlier, I exercised my membership in the Frequent Fallers Club. My innards got disheveled, and are slowly shifting their way back into place.

5. The grocery had only the extra-large size of one of my favorite rice mixes. Never mind, I can use it to fix my contribution to the Christmas celebration with B's family, since I was going to make a rice mix anyway.

6. With a little help from me, the cats bought us several presents this year. They're stacked underneath the tree, waiting for the day. It's coming ...

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Having made my plans for my next trip out of the country, even though it's not until next August, I figured it was finally time to replace my lost passport, especially as now is the slow season for passport applications.

Replacing a lost passport is considerably more complex than renewing an expired one. For renewal, you just get a new photo, attach it and a check to the application form, and mail it and the old passport in. (You get the old one back.)

For the lost one, I filled in and submitted a special form online which asks for things like the date and circumstances of the loss. The only place I got stuck was with the question, "Did you file a police report?" I didn't know how to answer this one. I filed a lost item report, yes, but not with the police, but with airport lost-and-found. (The police had in fact directed me to do so, after an airline employee had incorrectly directed me to the police, which only increased the amount of running around I had to do in the airport on the day.) So either a yes or a no would have been misleading.

The questions the online procedure asks you turn out also to fill out an application form for a new passport, which you print out with everything already filled out. But you can't just mail it in, no, you have to take it to a passport application center. You can look these up by zip code. Most of them are post offices, but I was relieved to find one at a local public library. Visiting the library in question, before I could get to the desk to ask, I noticed a sign on an office near the new books display, reading "passport applications." But on that office door was a notice saying you have to make an appointment in advance. Fair enough, and I could have gotten the same info from the library's web site if I'd thought to check that first.

Cross-correlating the info from the Dept of State website, the library's website, and an automated phone call I got from the library the day before my appointment was challenging enough. I learned from the others that I'd need to photocopy my driver's license, but only the phone call revealed that I'd need to photocopy both sides of it, on the same sheet of paper.

I also needed proof of ID, for which it said an expired passport would do, so since I still had the old one I brought that (and a photocopy of the info page) along, but just in case, I also prepared for the other option and hauled out my original birth certificate - the one I'd used to replace my driver's license - again, and photocopied that.

Arriving for my appointment, I found two librarians in the office, who went through all the questions in the application, examined all the supporting documentation, and then had me hold up my hand and swear to the truth of all the contents thereof. Have I ever had to do that before? I remember nothing of the process of my first passport application, but that was in more primitive times.

Then the library sends in the application, not me - something else unclear from the instructions - and now I wait.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

a messiah

Years ago, B. and I used to go to sing-along performances of Handel's Messiah that would crop up at this time of year, particularly the ones at Stanford's Memorial Church, as astoundingly resonant building. She'd sing soprano and, as probably the best non-professional soprano there, would attract all the other nearby sopranos as someone to follow, while I'd do what I could as a bass.

But we hadn't been for some years - probably since before I started blogging, since I can't find any earlier references to this - until this year, when due to the shift in her performing activities B. decided to join the Stanford play-along orchestra as a second violinist. (Most violinists want to be firsts, which leaves more room for the few who don't.) We parked at the student union, which while behind the church is actually a shorter walk than the obvious lots in front of it, and though we arrived before opening time, B. still only managed to grab a seat in the last stand of violins. I wandered separately down front, in hopes of being close enough to the orchestra to find B. when it was over, and found a tall mustached man standing in an empty row by the aisle holding up a sign reading "BASS", obviously looking to form a phalanx.

Just what I need, I thought, as I approached him and said, "I see you're wanting basses. I'm one, too."

He stuck out his hand. "My name's David."

"I'm one, too."

It was hard to tell how many we actually wound up with in the crowds and chaos of a full house, but there must have been at least a dozen occupying one end of three consecutive rows. I was next to a man with a very strong voice, which put me in a position of following him, useful in parts I didn't really know but a bit of a hindrance when I was more comfortable with the music. However, he left before Steve Sano, the conductor, announced we'd encore the Hallelujah Chorus, so I was able to do what I'd hoped, which was hook my voice up with a more general welter of bass sound and belt up.

I hadn't rehearsed any for this, but I'd worked on it hard enough back in the day that a lot of things came flooding back. I'm not a sight-reading singer, but have to learn by ear, but once I have learned a line by ear the score is my prompt-book and life-line and I wouldn't be without it.

We did the entirety of part one, minus a few arhythmic recitatives, plus a few highlights from later on: "The Trumpet Shall Sound," a bass aria I don't recall having done before; the final "Worthy Is the Lamb" and grand "Amen"; and of course the Hallelujah Chorus. Pretty festive show, and we all walked out warm into the night.

Friday, December 14, 2018

the great misreadings of all time

Some years ago I wrote about one of these: a misreading of C.S. Lewis, expressing dismay at somebody else's tastes, as an expression of his own tastes.

The worst misreading of Tolkien, not involving overlaying the Jackson movies on the books, that I ever saw was in a critical book I shall not name, for some of its contents were better than this. The critic had read the scene at the Mirror of Galadriel that includes this paragraph:

"She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad."

And came to this mind-boggling conclusion:

"Frodo never meant to destroy the Ring. His offer to give it to Galadriel, for example, is - as she acutely recognizes - motivated by revenge and an enactment of his power as Ringbearer over her, leaving her 'shrunken'."

How is it possible to read this scene, seeing anything other than the words "ring" and "shrunken", and come to such a warped conclusion? As every other critic who's ever read this scene recognizes, what shrinks Galadriel is returning to normal after rejecting the frightening power she would carry if she wielded the Ring. Frodo has no power as Ringbearer. He offers her the Ring not to take revenge on anything - where does one get such an idea? - nor even to tempt her, though tempt her is what it does, but out of a sincere wish to see its evil safely contained. What he says is: "You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel. I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me." Is that not a desire to be relieved of a terrible burden and to give it to more effective hands? How can one miss this? And what Galadriel replies is that it doesn't work that way. Read her last comment to Sam that closes the chapter.

That comes to mind because I just came across another case of a reader who must have skimmed through the book and completely missed what's going on. The book this time was Watership Down, and the topic was a blog post comparing Richard Adams' classic with a forgotten earlier novel uncannily resembling it, The Wind Protect You by Pat Murphy.* The poster explains, "The rabbits in Murphy’s book have the instincts and behaviours of real rabbits in the wild, clearly based on keen observation of, or reading about, how the creatures actually live, but they also have speech and imaginative thought. Watership Down has the same distinctive perspective."

So far so good, but among the specific similarities cited was this one:

"Another striking, and very specific, similarity is that in Murphy’s book the rabbits are assisted by deer, just as the doe Hyzthenlay helps the rabbits in Adams’ book."

I blinked at this. I could not at first figure out what this sentence meant. What does Hyzenthlay have to do with ...? Then it hit me. The writer thinks that when Adams uses the word "doe", he's referring to deer.

Well, while the OED's first definition of "doe" is a female deer, the second definition is a female hare or rabbit. But even if you didn't know that second definition - I sure didn't when I first read Watership Down - how is it possible to read the book and not pick that up?

I'm trying to imagine going through Watership Down under the impression that the does are deer. There's a whole bunch of deer living underground in a hidden rabbit warren. Hazel and his band - you did catch that, despite the name, Hazel is male, or did you? - make the effortful journey all the way to Efrafa to rescue some of these trapped deer and escort them up to the downs - to do what? Rabbits, mate with deer? Well, as B. pointed out when I told her about this, it is a fantasy.

Or wait - Adams calls the male rabbits "bucks". Maybe they're deer also. Maybe the whole book is about deer. Deer who dig holes in the ground, live underneath there, can be carried in a human's lap, and are afraid of housecats.

That's not the post's only misreading of WD - Bigwig is hardly "an experienced old veteran" when he joins the band - but I tried to be brief and restrained in the comment I left there.

Doe, a deer, a female deer
Ray, the name of Bradbury
Mi, a name, half of Mimi
Fa, you sing in "Deck the Halls" ...

- B. with D.'s help

*An English male writer, short for Patrick, not to be confused with the American female writer of the same nickname, short for Patrice, who hadn't been born yet when this was published in 1946.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

ecce homines, pars I

A series of modestly-sized uniform-formatted books on the American Presidents, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., began to appear from Times Books in 2002. Soon I began seeing these compact but conspicuous 8.5-inch high volumes in public libraries.

Six volumes, not in chronological order, came out that first year, and they continued appearing in quantity for about ten years. Schlesinger had died in 2007, but Sean Wilentz, who'd written the Andrew Jackson volume, took over as editor, and the series continued. Most of the authors were, like the two editors, distinguished historians, but a few journalists and actual political figures (George McGovern on Lincoln, Gary Hart on Monroe, John Dean on Harding) were salted in.

By 2012 only six volumes remained to get the series finished up through its original stopping point of George W. Bush, and these trickled in over the next several years. The final volume, Jeffrey Rosen on William H. Taft, appeared this year. (Whether they're commissioning a volume on Obama is not revealed on the series website; considering that it took 16 years to produce one on William H. Taft, we may have to wait a while.)

Over the years I've read several of the volumes, mostly on obscurer presidents, and found them ranging from the outstandingly insightful to the ploddingly perfunctory. I've decided to celebrate the completion of the series by reading the whole batch, in order of the presidencies they cover, and review them here, three at a time. Despite their brevity, this may take a while, but there's no better time to get started.

So here are the first three, covering the presidencies of 1789-1809. None I'd read before. Their treatment of their subjects is uniform, but as best I recall not all the others followed the same format. (Remember that these were not the first volumes to be published, but they did all appear in the series' 2nd or 3rd year.) Each covers its subject's presidency in fair chronological detail, focusing on the president's actions, but otherwise eschews being a complete biography in favor of discussing its subject's character in a sketchily biographical format. Thus the book on Washington says nothing about his military activities during the Revolution, only giving a brief coverage of his relationship with his subordinates for the light it shows on his character; and the book on Jefferson says little about the Declaration, and only brings up Sally Hemings in the context of the scandal over her, which didn't erupt until his re-election campaign in 1804.

It's in the depiction of the presidents' personal characters that the books differ. James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn on George Washington depict him as a man obsessed throughout life with his personal dignity and integrity. He was determined to find the one most proper course of action in any situation and then follow it. This served him excellently in his first term, creating the position of president as one of honor and respect, but never being tempted to declare himself a monarch (which in an unsettled environment, devoid of precedent, he could have done). But in his second term, as political faultlines began to widen among his advisers, Washington became a little lost. There was no longer one correct course of action, only one party or another to adhere to, and hence no place for him to go. He wound up becoming a Federalist, but more by default, or because Hamilton was still around while Jefferson had resigned, not by conscious intent.

John Patrick Diggins on John Adams is a portrait of a political philosopher. There's a whole chapter specifically on Adams' writings in that topic. Diggins warns that these books are hard going, and so is his chapter. Elsewhere, Diggins is clearer in his portrayal. Adams as a caustic conservative was convinced that, while you could eradicate a formal aristocracy in society, the people would always erect one based on wealth or prestige or some other factor. He held that government needed to be constructed to respond to this tendency. But his warning that an aristocracy you will always have with you was almost universally taken as a desire to promote that aristocracy, and so (Diggins says) Adams received unfair calumny. And the Alien and Sedition Acts weren't really his fault, yeah sure.

Diggins has trouble reconciling some of Adams' actions as president with his principles. Joyce Appleby on Thomas Jefferson doesn't even try. Her Jefferson is a man of contradictions - liberty-loving slave-owner is only the most obvious one - and she does a pretty good job of saying you just have to take him as he is. Because of these contradictions, he becomes something of a slippery character, and while Appleby promises to explain why Jefferson's big-government actions didn't violate his small-government principles, she never gets around to it. It's just another contradiction: Jefferson the peaceful farmer also the first nation-building president in Appleby's view, taking vigorous action to promote western settlement. (This of course involved exterminating the natives in whom he had a passionate anthropological interest: another contradiction.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Wow, what a lot of roughage in my concert of the two Big M's, Mozart and Mendelssohn. For some reason I found the review coming in short, and stuck some expository material in. I wonder if I'll get away with calling the "Scottish" the most epic symphony between Beethoven/Schubert and Brahms/Raff. There's another obvious candidate, but I could still make the argument that Mendelssohn carries the prize.

Monday, December 10, 2018

hoc tempore

Hanukkah is over already, but it's still Advent and B. is lighting her candles and has decorated the Christmas tree, underneath which cats perch and occasionally munch on the artificial needles. She's also playing the Roches' Christmas carol CD while doing the dishes after dinner. (I cook. She does the dishes.) So it's the season.

It also means it was the season for the book discussion group's annual Reading and Eating Meeting, last Saturday afternoon. This wilted, rather like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. There were only 6 of us there: us, the hostesses, and half the world's supply of authorized Elves. Nobody else was up to going, I guess. I brought along some home-cooked chopped chicken in an apple cider sauce I'd found in Raley's deli department, which was a big hit among the few who got to eat it; and when E. pulled out Always Coming Home to read from, I kicked myself that I'd forgotten to bring along one of Le Guin's late poetry collections to read from that, so I borrowed the book and read "The Third Child's Story" in its place. People claim that ACH is a utopia, but it isn't, and this piece is the clearest proof that not everyone is happy there.

Couldn't stay too long, as I had to get to work: to a concert whose review should be up tomorrow. Meantime, more in the season, the previous weekend I'd gotten to a choral concert titled "An English Christmas". It's sometimes hard to review these collections of numerous short pieces, but the review came out all right.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

concert review: Telegraph Quartet

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in the City, and not very many had come to Herbst Theatre to hear the Telegraph String Quartet. Even the President of San Francisco Performances, who usually says a little to introduce each concert, wasn't there.

Two composers on the program were Eastern European Jews whose lives were upended by 20th century totalitarianism. This biographical imperative seems to have helped drive their rise from obscurity to some note in the classical field in the last couple of decades. They still have some ways to go, so I was glad to hear them today.

Erwin Schulhoff was Czech, and was probably the most distinguished composer to be an actual casualty of the Nazi Holocaust. But he'd been around for a while, and wrote his Five Pieces in 1923. They're a variety of dances, from waltz to tango to tarantella. The music is harsh and brittle, perfect fare for the Telegraph, sounding a bit like Bartók or a less fragmented Webern, but it also contained a fair share of rhythm and bounce.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was Polish, and fled permanently to Russia when the Wehrmacht hit town. There he became known as Моисей Вайнберг, which transliterates as Moisei Vainberg or Vaynberg, so the form of his name is variable, but Mieczyslaw Weinberg seems to be becoming the preferred form. He also got caught up and nearly executed in the Doctors' Plot, which was one of Stalin's paranoid fantasies. He survived in part due to the sponsorship of his great mentor, Dmitri Shostakovich.

Not surprisingly, his music can sound a lot like his mentor's, and Weinberg's String Quartet No. 6 in E Minor, Op. 35 (1946) turns out to be fabulously good in a Shostakovich mode. It has dark-toned, slowish outer movements and a central Adagio filled with chromatic but intensely lyrical melodies for various solo instruments, frequently accompanied by emphatic pizzicato notes from the others. They're separated by a brief and vehement scherzo (in two nearly indistinguishable parts) and a muted and occasionally squirrely intermezzo. This really is a great quartet in the way that I like difficult modern music to sound.

Also on the program, one 19th-century composer, Antonín Dvořák. (Connection: the elderly Dvořák endorsed the very young Schulhoff to the Prague Conservatory.) The problem is that Dvořák's Op. 51 is relaxed and genial, and I'd have said the Telegraph Quartet doesn't do relaxed and genial. But unlike Kronos, which gave up on music that didn't fit their comfort zone, Telegraph is learning how to play it. This came out quite nicely, rather on the impassioned side and all the spikes sticking out clearly, but not so much as to distort the composition.

I've heard the Telegraph several times in the last couple of years, and they get better literally every time I hear them.

Saturday, December 8, 2018


I recently made my first contribution to ISFDB, and I have to say, it was a lot more painless than working for Wikipedia.

I'd happened out of passing curiosity to look up Damon Knight's critical-essay series, Monad, and discovered to my surprise that the third and last issue had no contents information. Well, I have all three issues, having subscribed at the time, so I registered myself with the site, used the previous issues' entries as a template, and entered the data, following the help entry's suggestion of adding a note reading "Working from book in hand."

Then I submitted it to the moderation queue, and within 24 hours it was up. Usually when I submit something useful to Wikipedia, within 24 hours some asshat editor has deleted it.

Also on ISFDB, when I egoscanned myself, I discovered, more to my horror than any other emotion, that somebody had entered the fanzine issue that my high-school SF club issued in my senior year. Now I have to decide whether to augment this info: correct the title, which they got wrong (it was deliberately confusing), link the co-editor to the entry under which he went on to write professionally under a different form of his name [he reads this: what do you think?], and - assuming I can dig out my copies from storage - enter the previous (which had a different title) and subsequent issues which they don't know about.

Friday, December 7, 2018

cattus agonistes

The cats went to the vet today for their annual checkup et al (shots, pedicure). This was the usual agony for them, strange lady feeling their kidneys and commenting on the state of their bowels, how humiliating.

We'd put the cat carriers out a couple days beforehand, to allow the fright at their appearance (it's a magic trick: how to make Pippin disappear) to die down before the actual event.

This morning I went through the normal routine, feeding Maia in the upstairs bathroom, closing the door on her as I sometimes do to keep her from wandering down and scarfing Pippin's food; then going downstairs to feed an eager Pippin. But something spooked him that overwhelmed his usually intense desire to eat. He dashed off and ran upstairs.

But instead of the closet he usually goes to ground in, he was faced at the top landing by a phalanx of closed bedroom and bathroom doors. With the despairing look of a contestant on Let's Make a Deal who's facing a refusal by Monty Hall to open anything, he just sat there on the landing, enabling B. to scoop him up and deposit him in the carrier. He's learned over the years that resistance is useless, the autocracy will overcome.

Then B. squeezed into the bathroom with the other carrier while I waited outside with a poised laundry basket in case Maia tried to make a break for it. Then through the closed door I heard a couple loud cat wails and a thump, followed by the emergence of a victorious B.

It was still half an hour before time to leave for the vet - that's what you get for giving us trouble, cats - so I stacked the carriers in the living room, giving Maia a chance to teach the usually silent Pippin how to wail in despair, and B. took a photo and posted it on Facebook with the title "Jailhouse blues."

After it was all over and we came home, they dashed off in all directions when we let them out. When I came down to fix dinner, I found them in the living room embodying the style of English place names, Maia-under-Tree (I'd set up the Christmas tree earlier in the afternoon) and Pippin-on-the-Couch, both giving me a very wary eye. But they ate their dinner OK, and Maia wanted her usual adoration afterwards.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


So a while ago, leaving plenty of time to find a successor, Michael Tilson Thomas announced his retirement from the music directorship of the San Francisco Symphony, as of the end of next season. That would be about a year and a half from now.

So today, still long before the change is due, they announced the next music director. And it will be:

Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Who retired from the Los Angeles Philharmonic a decade ago because he wanted to be relieved of the extra-conductorial burdens of being a music director (fund-raising, administration, community schmoozing) so he could spend more time composing.

So why did he change his mind? According to SFCV's news announcement, it was too juicy a job to refuse.

Well, okay. But I still don't quite get it.

But while this puzzles me more than excites me, it will, I think, be good for SFS on a strategic level.

For one thing, one of MTT's few flaws is that, while he talked a good new-music game, he rarely delivered. Salonen in LA delivered (and his successor there, Dudamel, is keeping it up). We can count on much more varied programming once Salonen arrives. How good a thing that will be depends on what he programs, and that will be affected by factors we can't yet measure.

Then there's the matter of the conductor's ability to set the orchestra's tone, which is a measure of his heft or subjective weight. When MTT arrived, he was 50 years old, a mid-career conductor who was respected and liked but did not, at the time, have a big reputation. But he was coming to an orchestra that was solidly built but didn't have much flash. He was able to put the flash, the extra degree of energy and enthusiasm, in. And after staying for 25 years, longer than any of his predecessors even in what had been a fairly stable job, he has built up a towering reputation and, turning 74 this month, has become one of the leading senior conductors of his time and, more to the point, has remade SFS entirely in his image.

Coming after such a figure is a challenge in itself. ("You replace Dr. Franklin?" asked the Parisians. "I succeed Dr. Franklin," replied Thomas Jefferson. "No-one can replace him.") Salonen, who's 60 and will have just turned 62 when he takes over, and with his successful couple of decades at LA behind him, is enough of a senior and powerful figure that he won't be overhung by MTT's shadow and can proceed on his own pace. But at the same time he's old enough that he probably won't stay more than a decade or so. Meaning that he'll have time to accomplish what he wants without becoming in turn a giant shadow. Like Herbert Blomstedt, whose decade as SFS music director roughly coincided with his sixties, he can leave a solid foundation for a younger successor to build upon after him. Who came after Blomstedt? MTT. So we go on ...

hoc est

This is it. The 6-page document legally analyzing the "backstop" agreement on EU/NI/UK trade, the one that May's government would do almost anything to avoid releasing. After repeated and increasingly growly insistences by an irritated Parliament, they gave in and let it out. (HTML cover page linking to PDF of the full document.)

So what's it say? It says that, though the backstop is declared to be temporary, that's temporary only on the basis of it being succeeded by a permanent agreement, which the parties are bound to proceed towards in good faith.

But since there is no perceivable way to reconcile the fundamentally conflicting imperatives on the Irish border question, at least not one better than the jury-rigged backstop, that points to a particular form of legal and administrative hell:

1) The backstop will go on applying indefinitely, possibly permanently, despite the fact that nobody likes it and it was accepted only because it'd be temporary;

2) The EU and UK will be, because of the "good faith" clause, bound to keep on negotiating actively, despite the fact that neither's desired position is even remotely acceptable to the other. They could well just sit there and make the same futile points over and over again. This could go on ... possibly forever.

Of course, there is a way out, though the Attorney General is too polite to specify it, saying only that this is a political question. That way out is: no Brexit.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

eine Festschrift für Flieger

A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger, edited by John D. Rateliff (Gabbro Head; available in print from Amazon, with e-book coming this month)

A Festschrift is a useful German term, designating a collection usually honoring a distinguished scholar, and in that case consisting of essays in the scholar's field by students and colleagues, often drawing from that scholar's work.

J.R.R. Tolkien has two scholarly Festschriften, one published soon after his retirement and the other posthumous. Of scholars who themselves study Tolkien, there are Festschriften of one sort or another honoring Christopher Tolkien, Richard Blackwelder, Tom Shippey, and now Verlyn Flieger.

I come not to review this book, because I'm in it, but to praise it. John Rateliff has assembled a raft of distinguished scholars who have built on Verlyn Flieger's deep thoughts and penetrating insights into Tolkien.

I knew I was in good hands with the first essay, Amy Amendt-Raduege on the development of Merry and Pippin into maturity and heroism. This is exactly the theme I placed on the last Mythcon I chaired, and never have I seen this prime example of it so clearly expounded on.

There's a lot more good ones: Marjorie Burns on pre-echoes of The Hobbit in Grahame and Buchan, a paper I heard her give at a small conference years ago; Thomas Hillman and colleagues on the role of dreams in Tolkien, a highly Fliegeresque topic; Thomas Honegger also on heroism in LotR and what Tolkien accomplished by not making the story into a Chanson d'Elessar; John Rateliff himself on everything you need to know about the mysterious Romano-Celtic god Nodens to understand Tolkien's scholarly note on the name's philology; Anna Smol on sub-creation as practiced by the characters in several elusive Tolkien stories; Kris Swank on several clear Irish literary parallels in Tolkien's work; Richard C. West's clear and detailed study of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, including why Tolkien spelled the name that way; and many others.

There's two papers regarding Tolkien's recollection of writing a childhood story about a "green great dragon," examining why his mother told him it ought to be a great green dragon instead; one of which, by John R. Holmes, points out that if you look up "green great" in Google Books today, you'll find a lot of Tolkien scholarship about this very incident: "We peer into the linguistic telescope to find ourselves staring back."

There's also some papers on Verlyn's own fiction, mostly on how her work reflects on Tolkien's; and some brief personal essays honoring her scholarship and her teaching.

My own piece discusses what I've learned from Verlyn's scholarship as to what makes Smith of Wootton Major such a perfect fairy-story. I think I hit on something, because I've already received two e-mails complimenting me on such observations as "[the interpretation of the plot] seems to me to be dyed into the fabric of the story" and "What fantasies in unthinking imitation of Tolkien's have taught me is that all the appendices in the world will be of no appeal, will be just so much empty data, if the story isn't moving and meaningful."

I hope we have left Verlyn Flieger well-honored.

Monday, December 3, 2018

exempli gratia

1. Sunday evening was the first night of Hanukkah. Our goyische wall calendar says "Hanukkah begins" under Monday, which is impressively misleading. B. didn't realize it started the previous night until I began to light the candles.

2. And it's also Advent, so her candle ceremony comes right after mine.

3. So I've been trying to spend more time at work in the library than in the past. I've undertaken a massive project which will take a few months to complete, cleaning up the typos and inconsistencies in the subject database. This would be less of a problem had I been reviewing the inputters' work all along, so I'm trying to do that too.

4. Occasionally SFCV decides to review a few CDs. And sometimes they ask me to do that. This time the publisher didn't send out the physical CDs, but issued a press release with links to Dropbox entries with WAV files and a PDF of the liner notes. I took my good headphones down to the library and listened to it on the computer there so I could follow along with the (non-circulating) scores. Read my brief take (CD reviews are 300 words) on bristling modern performances of three bristling modern quartets here.

5. News nugget that people are buying iceberg lettuce as a desperate substitute for tainted romaine. That choice amuses me, as I actually like iceberg, and generally consider romaine an acceptable substitute. I won't eat most other lettuce at all. The spinach recall years ago didn't worry me, because I only eat spinach cooked. Lettuce is another matter, but except for the occasional caesar salad I rarely eat salads, and I only eat caesars because they're made with romaine. So right now I'm not eating those either.

6. World's most caustic Bible book review, by Jo Walton.

7. 2 1/2 years ago I went to a week-long string quartet festival in the Canadian Rockies. I had a fabulous time. Would I return when they held it again in three years? I said, very possibly. They've announced next summer's schedule. I've looked at it. There will be a good helping of Schubert this year. I've thought about it. And yes, I'm going. This is in part in compensation for not being able to get to the Tolkien Society's Birmingham conference a few weeks earlier.

8. Delayed flight announcement for the fabulous new book on Tolkien I'm reading, until I finish reading it. Which should be real soon.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

de mortuis nil nisi bonum

Never have I seen this rule more stringently applied than in the obituaries that have been appearing this morning for the late U.S. President, George "H.W." Bush. They're all about the wisdom of his foreign policy and the character virtues of his restrained and humble personality.

Yes, there may be some acknowledgment that, say, the 1988 election was not the highlight of his career, but let's leave it at that. In fact, Bush's virtues did not go unnoticed during his active career, but they had a tendency to get drowned out by less admirable things. That 1988 campaign, for one, put the lie to any categorical statements about Bush's uprightness and honesty. If he's willing to go down in the gutter like that, it doesn't really matter that he doesn't spend all of his time there.

This article concentrates on the particularly interesting area of his foreign policy, arguing that during an especially critical period of two years he was something of a genius at it. More so than he himself realized: one of the virtues cited in the article was his bringing the Gulf War to an end after the liberation of Kuwait, not turning it into an imperialist conquest of Iraq. The article doesn't mention that, although for some years he eloquently defended that decision, after his son launched Gulf War II to do exactly what had been refrained from earlier, the elder Bush started saying "I miscalculated." No, he hadn't, and subsequent events have shown that.

I noted much of the foreign policy achievement at the time, particularly admiring the careful and diplomatic handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire. Had I been polled at the time and asked if I thought the President was doing a good job, I would have had to say yes. So did a lot of other people, which is why the pollsters were so bewildered by his loss of the next election. But what the pollsters failed to do was to follow Ted Sturgeon's advice to ask the next question. After saying that I thought Bush was doing a good job, if I'd been asked, "And do you plan to vote for his re-election?" I would have replied, "Hell no." Well, why? Because I didn't support his economic program. (Characteristically, the above-cited article mentions only the half-right part of that policy.)

And so the first vice-president since Martin Van Buren to immediately succeed his presidential predecessor by election, instead of accession, like Van Buren passed out of office after one term.

A word on his name. Everything written about him today invariably calls him "George H.W. Bush". It seems to have been written out of history that, during his active political career, he was always called "George Bush" with no initials whatever. Google ngrams confirms that he was never called "H.W." until his son George W. began running for President around 1998 and it became necessary to clearly distinguish the two. That's fine, although I find the previously-unused initials intrusive and prefer to call him "'Poppy' Bush"; it's the retroactive erasure of the old form, as if it never existed, that feels weird.

ETA: Politico has more, a lot more, on the real legacy of George Bush.