Tuesday, December 31, 2019

the annual year-end post

Off today to get my car serviced. I usually do this around the half-year change, but not usually so tightly up against the moment.

In the meantime, for record-keeping and general entertainment, here's the cities I stayed in away from home in 2019:

Costa Mesa, CA
New York, NY
Windsor, CT (2)
Williamstown, MA
San Diego, CA (2)
Santa Maria, CA
Moreno Valley, CA
Banff, AB
Ashland, OR

That amounts to four Inklings-related conferences (I think a record in one year for me), plus one musical expedition and one theatrical one. Of these six, the two reached by car were the ones shared with B., who achieved her goal of not having to set foot in an airport for the entire year.

San Diego was twice from a pre-Mythcon planning trip as well as the conference itself, and Windsor was twice for stays near the airport on the way to and from Williamstown.

Other states I ventured into slightly (very slightly) were corners of Vermont and New Jersey.

None of these were anywhere I hadn't been before, though nearly a whole week in Manhattan gave me a view of the place different from anything offered by earlier, more hurried visits. As I noted at the time, I appreciated the chance to finally figure out the subway system, but despite some extremely appealing cultural amenities, I would find living there far too exhausting. Everywhere else I visited this year was much less stressful.

During the year I had 34 professionally published concert reviews, plus a CD review and an article describing a new venue. I co-edited one volume of Tolkien Studies, to which I made contributions to the bibliography, book reviews, and Year's Work, and I had one of my conference papers published, which I whipped into written form at the earnest entreaty of the organizers.

One other note, since sure enough this is going to come up: yes, today is the end of the decade. It's the end of the decade whose third digit is 1. That's just as much a decade as any theoretical "2010s" which still has a year to run, and since it's all arbitrary number-slinging anyway - the Earth continues to orbit regardless of what labels we use - it's illogical to refuse to acknowledge the more popular usage.

Monday, December 30, 2019

on the eighth night of Hanukkah

Instead of lighting the candles quietly at home, I went out to a religious ceremony at our synagogue. (B. would have been with me, but she's feeling under the weather and didn't want to pass it on.) It was a ceremony of an unusual kind, dubbed a service of renaming and rededication.

One of my colleagues at the library has come out as a trans man and decided to mark this with a small ceremony surrounded by invited friends and colleagues. He had been hesitant about coming out, and approached it slowly, for several reasons, among them uncertainty as to how others would react. But everyone at the synagogue was welcoming. (My own practical response to the news, as the person in charge of the catalog, was to take the initiative to use the global change function to update the name in the donor field for all of his past donations.)

As I told L. in response to the invitation, B. and I have a number of trans friends and acquaintances (of both sexes), so we've seen this change of life before. What we hadn't seen before was a religious ceremony for it, and one to be of such thoughtfulness and spiritual significance. It was conducted by our principal rabbi, started with the lighting of five hanukkiyot, and continued with prayers, songs, sermons, and the ubiquitous Jewish blessings. And afterwards, the noshing of jelly donuts.

Throughout, the intertwining of this ceremony with other aspects of Jewish religious tradition was deep and thorough. This is the kind of thing that keeps me at home in my religion, even though I'm not much of a practitioner. Blessings on dedication and on namings were numerous. Some friends gave a Torah lesson in the form of recounting name changes in scripture, ranging from Abraham to Joshua. L. in his sermon compared this ceremony with the private one he held a few years ago to dedicate his apartment, which he'd done to make himself feel more at home in it. Now, he said, he's rededicating his home in another sense for the same reason. He wants to feel at home here too.

So I made a point of saying, when I talked with L. afterwards, that - on this first seeing of him in his new identity - that I thought it fits him, that he looks at home in it. I've noticed this before with trans people whom I knew before transition, that they look more at ease, more themselves, now than they did before. And it's this observation that - I started to say "convinced me," but I needed no convincing - showed to me that transition is a real thing.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pride and Prejudice: the musical

World premiere of this Austen adaptation at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto), going on through January 4. Written and composed by Paul Gordon, who's also given the world similar adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Jane Eyre.

To make time for the songs (though they're pretty brisk and efficient ones here), musicals require even more condensation of a novel than spoken plays do, and this one paints Austen's characters in pretty broad strokes. Every time in the first act that Lizzy (Mary Mattison) and Darcy (Justin Mortelliti) have an argument, it's immediately succeeded by a soliloquy song in which Darcy exclaims how ravishing he finds her. The second act is similarly filled with soliloquy songs for Lizzy exclaiming on the new light in which she sees Darcy.

Despite its brevity, it gives Lizzy a lot to say. She already says a lot in the book, but everything else you've always wished she could say to the plot's assorted fatheads, she says it here. For instance, after telling Wickham (Taylor Crousore) off, he stalks offstage, and Lizzy turns to the audience and says, "That felt fabulous!"

Most of the letters read by characters are depicted by having the character who wrote them appear downstage to give the text. Naturally, the patent insincerity of the greetings of Miss Bingley (Monique Hafen Adams) are most amusing. Some characters are a bit sketchy: all five sisters are there, but pretty much all that Mary (Melissa WolfKlain) gets to do is introduce the scene changes.

The songs are not particularly memorable, but they're pleasant, and are well placed to underline emotions. The most effective was the song for Jane (Sharon Rietkerk) in which she acknowledges that Bingley (Travis Leland) seems to have given her up, in which she sadly describes him as being now merely "a man of my acquaintance."

The actors are mostly Equity professionals. They act well; I'm not so sure how well they sing. The sets (just a few furnishings scattered here and there) and costumes are good, but the amplification was horribly tinny and hard to get used to. The instruments, at least, are live and not synthesized.

Lizzy is dressed and made up in a way that resembles Saoirse Ronan playing Jo March. (I've been immersing myself in old adaptations of Little Women in anticipation of seeing the new movie, and the parallels in character between Jo and Meg on the one hand, and Lizzy and Jane on the other, are striking. The other sisters on each side, not so much.) Darcy facially resembles a young Richard Burton, and has the iron-laced speaking voice of James Mason, though his singing voice is higher and smoother. Mr Collins (Brian Herndon) bears the facial mien of Alan Rickman: think Snape, but without the hair. But the same actor plays Mr Gardiner, and then looks entirely different. Mrs Bennet is written to be a flibbertigibit, but Heather Orth doesn't play her that way, which is refreshing. Mr Bennet (Christopher Vettel) is more sympathetic than sarcastic. Lady Catherine (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) swoops down with all the pomposity one could desire.

I enjoyed this and am very glad I saw it.

Friday, December 27, 2019

on the sixth night of Hanukkah

All this time it's been Hanukkah, and I've been lighting the candles each evening, followed by B. with her Advent and Christmastide candles. The candles can be perilous. This year's set came with unusually long wicks, and one shamas, after I lighted the end of the wick, snuffed out at the candle tip while the drooping end of the wick continued to burn, hollowing out the middle of the candle as I recited the blessings. I had to snuff it out, discard it, and start over. Don't tell me if some halakhic responsum forbids this. Since then I've trimmed the wicks.

Tonight was the Jewish celebratory dinner, another breaking of our diets. Matzo ball soup and challah (plus veggies). I made the soup and veggies, and I'm not revealing where I bought the challah, but it was good. What, no latkes? No, because B. is the only one who'd eat them. In years gone, we'd have my mother and (if he was in town) my brother over, and three people would eat enough latkes to make it worthwhile making them. But my mother is no longer with us and my brother isn't here, so we skipped that.

B. also bought two donuts for dessert. But I came downstairs to fix dinner to find a bag on the floor that now contained only one and a half donuts. No prize for guessing the species of the culprit.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

milk latin

One of B.'s current activities is studying languages, including Latin. So when she left me a note this morning asking me to pick up some milk, I applied my small Latin to report success by sending her an e-mail reading, in full, "habemus lacte".

Her reply? "deo gratias"

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

on Christmas day in the afternoon

Since B.'s brother and his wife, who've traditionally hosted the family Christmas, have moved up to Seattle to be near their grandchildren, her niece (sister's daughter) T., who's already taken both Thanksgiving and Easter, has claimed this as well.

So thither we went. A few other scattered relatives and several of T's friends. Not too many to crowd out the house this time, but enough to make a serious dent on the fixings, which included both turkey and roast beast. Having had luck with my green bean casserole last time, I made it again, although the making was much interrupted by my sous chef. Cut ends off bean, pick up cat from counter and put him on the floor, cut ends off bean, pick up cat from counter and put him on the floor, cut ends off bean ...

Only this time, since B. doesn't like mushrooms, I changed the cream of mushroom part of the recipe. I'd figured the "cream of" part could be used to make cream of something else, and had previously experimented by using the recipe to make myself for lunch cream of shrimp, which worked very well, and cream of chicken, which tasted a little burnt. This time I made cream of celery, which was blander than I expected, but served.

After exchange of presents (I having received both Amazon and B&N gift cards), we headed home just in time to feed hungry cats. Toasty afternoon on a cool but not inclement day.

Christmas reading

Santa Claus, this is your life.

Melania, this is your holiday taste.

Louisa, these are your adaptations (and what happens when the viewer becomes punch-drunk before writing about them)

Rudy, old buddy, this is what anti-semitism looks like

To all, why you should have a merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

When I heard that song on some commercial sound system a while ago, I thought, "beginning??" But in fact there's a difference between the "holiday season" and the actual imminence of Christmas, even for a non-Christian like myself, when that person is married into Christmas-celebrating.

For one thing, there's presents. B. likes books, but these days prefers electronic ones: easier to carry around, take up less room. The problem I've found in the past is that specific books, as opposed to gift cards, are hard to arrange to give as gifts. However, Amazon's Kindle - the platform B. finds easiest to use - has introduced a gift function into their online purchase system. You enter the recipient's e-mail and a delivery date, and on that date they send the person a pick-up link. (And, it turns out, they send you, the sender, a note when it's been picked up.)

This was perfect because the last time I was in a physical store I saw a book that was ideal for B., except that its physical form was larger and heavier than she'd have liked even before e-books. She's been reading a lot of popular medieval history, especially English, of late - Alison Weir and authors like that - and this was an ideal book in that category: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel, who is the manuscripts and rare books librarian of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (two points for the Tolkien connection here, though it isn't mentioned in the book). It's a detailed account of the making, physical form, and contents of a dozen varied and colorful medieval mss., most of them of course religious, with the aim of giving the reader a sense of what it would be like to sit down with them and physically turn their pages, since few of us will ever have that opportunity. De Hamel writes that his aim is to bring "a well-informed but non-specialist reader into intimate contact with major medieval manuscripts," and I thought: perfect, since that's exactly the level B. is reading at, and this will be a gateway to further exploration, and in just the fields of study that most interest her. And: lots of photos of mss. pages.

Since we'll be busy Christmas morning - B. with mass, I with cooking - I set the delivery date of the e-book for today, and it made a good present. She found another one on getting home from work at noon (because there's another mass this afternoon). I went shopping early this morning for ingredients for my contribution to the family Christmas dinner, and I had another geas on my list: kale. This is B's favorite green for lunch, but the packages she's been getting from Safeway recently have all been spoiled, even if supposedly not past expiration date, and she's asked me if I go shopping to find her some more. Having found earlier that Lucky's didn't have it in a convenient package, for my shopping today I decided to try a higher-end store, and went up the road to Draeger's, where I found an entirely different brand of baby kale, with eleven days remaining on its shelf life, so I hope it'll be good. It was expensive, but this was Draeger's.

So that's what we have so far.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

a realization

A conversation I was having online led me to a further step in understanding why I like Tolkien, what made him special the way other authors were not. When I was a youngster and said I liked Tolkien, friends and other well-meaning people would direct me for further reading to sword and sorcery like Howard and Leiber, and later to the Tolclones like Brooks and Eddings. But despite the obvious superficial similarities of setting, I did not enjoy these other authors at all. And I've been spending the over forty years since then wondering, why not?

I've come up with various reasons for this - the morality of Tolkien's stories and characters, the quality of his prose - but now I have what is perhaps a different other one.

The conversation started with Star Wars, the original one. My reaction to that movie at the time was a shrug and a "not bad." If it had been up to me, it would have been noted and then quickly forgotten. (Since then, my opinion of it has only gone down, especially as I've learned how to recognize in the struggles of the actors how bad the dialogue is.) But my friend reported being cheered by the discovery that other people liked SF too.

That didn't hit me. The problem was that Star Wars was not the kind of SF I was interested in reading. Demotic space opera, which is what it was, had never appealed to me. But that didn't mean that I was a real highbrow SF reader either: high literary and experimental authors like Delany, Ellison, or Russ were not really my cuppa. I liked authors with a plainer storytelling style but equally rich content. Le Guin above all, but also among then-contemporary younger authors the likes of McIntyre, Silverberg, Zelazny. Well, Zelazny's prose was pretty ornate, but it was a kind of ornateness I could see my way through.

Same was true with fantasy. The newer fantasies I liked had different kinds of settings than Tolkien, but shared his need for a moral sense, for depth of character and creation, and especially in the last a sense of the mythic. Earthsea (Le Guin again), Watership Down, McKillip. (No, Star Wars isn't mythic in that sense. It's plug-and-play Campbellian hero. Myths are imbued and organic.)

So that's where I was in my thinking. What led me to my new realization was remembering that the SF movie of my youth which gave me the "wow" that Star Wars gave others was 2001. No, I didn't claim to understand it at the age of 12 (and in fact I think even most adults didn't). What I did perceive was that it meant something and wasn't just random nonsense. As most of my media consumption at that age was children's lit and silly 1960s tv comedy shows, I craved something that stretched my capacity to understand it. The only tv show I saw in childhood that I yearned to see again when I was older was Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, because it stretched me: it was beyond my ability to fully understand it at 11, and I thought I'd appreciate it better when I was older. In the case of The Prisoner, I was able to see it again a decade later when I was in college (no videocassette releases yet then), at which time sure enough it clarified itself for me, though still posing tantalizing questions. As for 2001, the mystery of that was clarified for me a year or two after the film when I read Arthur C. Clarke's novel, which Explained All. But it didn't crush the movie into simplicity for me, just rendered it graspable.

The point is, all these things were neither trivial on the one hand nor pretentious on the other. They had substance, substance whose presence could be perceived by the youthful and unsophisticated viewer/reader even if that person could not understand or analyze that substance. Maturity or further study, or both, would lead to greater enlightenment, and that meant, incidentally but inherently, that the work would repay multiple encounters.

And all this was true of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn't as mysterious or hard to understand as some of these others, but it did demand sophisticated understanding. And that's why I loved and admired it.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

the spelling of Cats

There have been a whole lot, a really whole lot of negative reviews of the new Cats movie (including one, ghu help us, written as a bad Eliot pastiche), but what's amused me is the trouble that a few of the reviewers are having with the Heaviside Layer.

The Heaviside Layer is a real thing; it was a scientific discovery of Eliot's younger years, so he must have come across references to it somewhere. It's the part of the upper atmosphere that reflects radio waves. It got its name from the English physicist who originally postulated its existence, Oliver Heaviside.

But the fact that the musical uses the name as a metaphor for rebirth (it says here) doesn't mean you can respell it as Heavyside Layer or, even worse, Heavenside Layer. Heavenside Layer: that's the kind of normalization to the reviewer's mindset that produced "Nazi-ghoul" in Tolkien.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

victory over circumstances

We do a kind of quick and dirty cataloging at my congregational library, partly because our cataloging program isn't professional-level and because the inputting is done by volunteers. For most of our books, the inputter types in the ISBN, the program fetches a record from the LC or other online library database, and they make changes (local subject headings and call numbers) as I've trained them, and that's it.

Tougher material I usually do myself, and that includes all of the media cataloging. Only a few of these have ISBNs, and for movies on DVD I'm mostly just looking for directors, screenwriters, and principal stars to make as entries, a brief thematic plot summary for the notes, and appropriate subject headings and (if it's a documentary) call number to go with. This is often easily enough done from the box, and I don't even have to look up an online record.

But I was faced today with a batch of Israeli films in Hebrew only, which we're taking because of increased interest as the demographics of the membership evolve. My secret confession is, I don't really know Hebrew. I know the alphabet, and I can recognize individual words I know, and I can tell if a given Latin-alphabet transcript matches a Hebrew work in hand, but outside of the words I know, I can't tell the vowels without vowel signs so I can't transcribe myself, and of course I have no idea what the bulk of it is saying.

Some of these DVD boxes have the English-language title of the movie on them. So those I look up on IMDB to get the creators' names and the summary, with help from online records at WorldCat (which often have better, i.e. briefer, summaries). But some of them don't. The Hebrew-alphabet titles are now encoded in the WorldCat records, but I lack the technical capacity to enter those letters myself to make a search.

However, there are two things most of the DVD boxes have which are in English: the name of the distributor, and the date. That's good enough. The magic of Boolean sets and of cataloging fixed fields will come to my rescue. I search the name of the distributor in Worldcat as a corporate added entry. I limit this by form DVD, date, and language Hebrew. This gives me a result of 40-50 items, and it's easy enough to scan through these and look for the right Hebrew title. That entry gives me the English-language title, and it's back to IMDB for further info as before.

I get a dozen done in one afternoon, and that's a satisfying day's work.

Friday, December 13, 2019

musical outing

In which music was made, not just listened to.

Tonight was Stanford's annual singalong Messiah, held as usual in the reverberant and gaudily decorated quarters of its Memorial Church. As last year, B. went to play violin in the orchestra, while I went to sit with the phalanx of basses who occupy the opposite front. This time I sat in the front of the group, so I could hear them better than they could hear me. It worked out well, and with the support I could also determine which choral numbers I most need to practice before next year's sing.

But! That was not all. A local woman who plays the flute (and, occasionally, the cello, so she has one) was hosting her visiting nephew who is a more skilled cellist, so she went looking for a violinist and violist so they could have a session playing flute quartets together. A couple degrees of separation away was B., so we stopped by the house for some music-making and dinner before heading Messiahward. B. - who would have had her violin with her anyway - was the violinist, and I and the family dog were the audience. Chamber music is supposed to be played in a small room (hence the name) by friends, and this fit the description. They played Mozart's K. 285 and K. 298 and some other stuff. Maybe after B. retires she'll have time for more music-making of this sort.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

if it had happened otherwise

The Library of America is currently running through James Thurber pieces for their "story of the week" feature, and last week's was his "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox."

The introduction notes that this was a parody of a series of alternate-history articles that had been running in Scribner's Magazine in 1930, and which was quickly brought to a close with its third item after Thurber published his parody in The New Yorker. The implication is that Thurber embarrassed the series, whose items the intro claims were "quickly forgotten," into silence.

What the intro doesn't tell you is that all three items, plus eleven others, were published the next year, 1931, in book form, as If It Had Happened Otherwise, edited by J.C. Squire. Rather than being forgotten, this collection became a classic of alternate history. I have a copy of the 1972 reprint edition, which is available used, though since it runs about $200 a copy, it looks like time for another reprint.

The implication is that the "forgotten" essays are dull and pompous, but they're anything but. "If Booth had Missed Lincoln," which is by Milton Waldman (best remembered now as the editor to whom J.R.R. Tolkien sent a long explication of his mythology in 1950 when Waldman was trying to wrest the works away from Tolkien's previous publisher), takes the form of a review of an imaginary biography of Lincoln, and focuses on the peace-minded Lincoln having a postwar standoff with the Radical Republicans in Congress - which I agree would probably have happened, if not quite so gruesomely or with the tragic ending depicted here.

"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" by Winston Churchill (yes, the Winston Churchill), is a goofy attempt to write an alternate-history from the alternate-history's point of view, trying to imagine our history. Churchill quickly drops American affairs and turns to British politics, claiming that a Confederate victory in the war would have led to Gladstone and Disraeli exchanging parties, with the severe Gladstone reverting to his Tory origins and Disraeli leading the Radicals, and an end result of the squashing of the breakout of World War I. In contrast to the Waldman, I'm not sure I believe any of this, but it's an amusing notion.

"If Napoleon Had Escaped to America," by the noted historian H.A.L. Fisher, is written as a memoir by Napoleon's U.S. aide-de-camp, who follows the Emperor in his attempt to establish a new empire in South America. Like Waldman's Lincoln, the story terminates abruptly, but it's an amusing conceit.

Of the other eleven essays, only a couple, like Churchill's, deal with the all-too-common turning point of the losing of a war, and some are a bit imaginative, like "If Louis XVI had had an Atom of Firmness" (by André Maurois) or "If the General Strike [in the UK in 1926] had Succeeded," a rather nasty imaginary newspaper (set in newsprint type) by Ronald Knox. Most of the authors are notable: G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Philip Guedalla and Emil Ludwig. I won't go through them all, but I will point to my favorite: it's by the editor, John Squire, and it's the furthest removed from political history: "If It Had Been Discovered in 1930 that Bacon Really Did Write Shakespeare," which treats popular culture reaction to the news ("What does it matter who wrote such romantic and reactionary rubbish?" - Mr. G. Bernard Shaw), and is altogether to my taste the funniest piece of alternate-history I've ever read. Even funnier than Thurber's.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

clueless in techieland

I've had this question for years but it had never been in the forefront of my mind enough to ask it. But the same mysterious formulation that I've seen occasionally all that time is cropping up on political candidate signs, and I thought I'd ask about it.

It consists of an instruction, "Text [word] to [number]." For instance, on Elizabeth Warren's campaign signs, it reads "Text IOWA to 24477."

What does this mean? What is this number? It's usually five digits long, and it's printed without hyphens, so it's not a regular phone number. What kind of number is it, and by what means do you text to it? And what happens if you do? What sort of responses do these instructions generate, and by what means do they reach you?

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

Here's the review.

I knew exactly what I wanted to say here, but am not satisfied that I said it with any elegance or complete clarity. Especially with the Brahms. Did I convey what was odd about this performance? It's not that it was badly played, though there were more clams than in the other pieces, often a sign that the musicians haven't been fully inculcated into what the conductor wants them to do.

What he evidently wanted this time was the same kind of playing they gave Khachaturian and Glinka, which was fine for those pieces but doesn't really fit Brahms, like the wrong size clothes. But whether that was responsible for the enervated feeling in the opening movements, I'm not sure.

I am pleased that my editors let me get away with calling playing the Khachaturian piano concerto "exhuming" it. That kind of language is my critique of the modernist hegemony, which for decades buried works like this because they were too good: they show that standards other than severe modernism are still viable. This wouldn't be news in any other realm of music.

I had one research tickle here, when I looked up my old review of the SFS concert with a musical saw in it and confirmed that, yep, it was the same player. Since this concerto has been played with a saw or a flexatone or no added instrument at all, I wrote the orchestra management in advance to ask, and they told me their whole story.

And one challenge: I recognized the pianist's encore as a Strauss waltz, but I didn't know which one. Doubting that I'd be able to keep the tune in mind over the second half of the concert, I adopted something new to me as a memory device: I went outside during intermission, pulled out my phone, and sent myself a voicemail humming the melody. It was easy enough to look up in Barlow & Morgenstern when I got home.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Tom Lehrer: The Next Generation

It's often been observed that Weird Al Yankovic is the Allan Sherman of his day, and I endorse that view (and would more enthusiastically were Weird Al more likely to parody songs I know, or which at least have an actual tune).

But what I hadn't seen was a successor to Tom Lehrer, the other humorous songsmith who was a star of my youth. Lehrer's distinctive characteristic, besides the fact that he almost always wrote his own tunes (rather than making parodies) and accompanied himself on the piano, was his utterly black sense of humor. He would take politically touchy or downright gruesome topics and treat them with light and fetching wit. Songs like "We Will All Go Together When We Go" (cheerfully mulling the prospect of World War III) or "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" (self-explanatory) disgusted some people, but if you accepted Lehrer's sense of comedy they were hilarious.

Recently I had call to link to a video of Lehrer's "National Brotherhood Week" (wading boldly into a politically sensitive realm) and noticed in the YouTube comments several remarks to the effect that this was like Bo Burnham.

So who is Bo Burnham? Besides being the writer/director of the recent movie Eighth Grade (painfully realistic, and not as funny as it thinks it is), he's a stand-up comic whose specialty is ... writing his own songs, both words and melody, and accompanying himself on the keyboard. And doing so with a Tom Lehrer-like dark sense of humor.

I found that I only liked about half of the Bo Burnham songs I listened to online, which is a low percentage by Lehrer standards, but some of them were good, and the absolute winner was this one. Warning: if you do not like Tom Lehrer, do not listen to this song. You'll be horribly offended. (It's also more misogynist than the author probably realizes.) But the resemblance, not in style but in aesthetic approach, to Lehrer's most evil-minded moods is uncanny.

The title of that one would give it away, but I also enjoyed listening to "Lower Your Expectations," "From God's Perspective," and his parody of glossy commercial country music, "Pandering." He's been around for a bit but hadn't come to my attention.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

reading and eating

Our Mythopoeic group had its annual yule-festive reading and eating meeting yesterday. It was kind of small. Our one new member didn't come, because when the hostess gave us an unusual date for the meeting I passed it along to him; this turned out to have been a mistake, but when I gave him the correction he neglected to put it on his calendar, so he didn't come.

For a food contribution, I made the same fresh green-bean-and-mushroom cream casserole that I'd made for Thanksgiving. It has mushrooms, right? We're supposed to be Tolkien fans, right? Hobbits love mushrooms, therefore we're also supposed to love mushrooms, so it's appropriate.

I don't actually see how that follows, since hobbits also love to smoke, but I don't see many Tolkien fans doing that. Furthermore, I don't love mushrooms. I can tolerate fresh ones, though, which unlike canned mushrooms haven't achieved a degree of sliminess that only Gollum could love, so I can eat these. B. is more stringent, and picks them out. Anyway, most of it got eaten and complimented, but there was enough for leftovers.

My readings this year were inspired by earlier ones. Last year, A.S. read a passage from Good Omens that declared a rule that any cassette tape left in your car turns into The Best of Queen. That reminded me of something, and I succeeded in digging it out because I'd once copied it for an apazine. It was a column from the heyday of the San Francisco Chronicle's great columnists. It was by Steve Rubinstein, not the better-remembered Jon Carroll, as Steve Rubinstein was more likely to write about music. (He once did a column, which I also kept, about going to the symphony, in which he called out a piece by Elliott Carter as the unintelligible and unappealing glop that it is, and didn't that generate furious letters from the modernist hegemony.)

This one dated from 1987, and dealt with that new technology, the compact disc. It tells of a friend who bought a James Brown CD but found when playing it that, contrary to the label and everything else, it was Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. ("This must be a new arrangement of 'Prisoner of Love,'" said Dan. He wasn't kidding.) And of how hard it is to convince anyone, from his friend to the clerk back at the record store, that the label is wrong.

We often get old classics at the meeting. This year, A.W. pleasurably reminded us of the opening of The Hobbit. One earlier year, she read Eliot's "Macavity," and I was interested in how different her style and emphasis were from the way I'd do it. So this year I did it, with appropriate dramatics. Comment afterwards was on how much my reading differed from the musical setting. Yes, well, I had Old Possum's Book half-memorized long before Cats ever came out, and while I like the musical, I'm not enamored of it enough to internalize the songs, so to me they're still poems, not song lyrics.

Had to leave fairly promptly, by which time the drizzling rain had erupted into a torrent, drop B. off at home and then head down to San Jose for a concert to review. More on that when it's published.

Friday, December 6, 2019

news of the

1. The first sign of the impending Violins of Hope residency, as I previously reported on, has made its appearance: an exhibit of action photos taken at the shop of the Israeli luthier, the man who's collected and repaired all these violins. He's shown unpacking and evaluating a new arrival. He says from the pattern of wear on the fingerboard that it was a klezmer violin. I'm impressed one can tell.

Some of the violins have a mother of pearl Mogen David on the back.

More disturbing is the photo of the dismantled interior of, I think, a different violin. Its Jewish owner was still in Berlin in 1936 when he took it in to a luthier there for an extensive tuneup. Taking the violin apart, the repairer inscribed on the inside, where he knew the owner wouldn't see it, the words "Heil Hitler" and a swastika.

The photos are posted on the corridor walls of the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, in Foster City.

2. Cats to the vet today. Tybalt was in when we first got him, nearly a year ago, but this time he knows what to expect and doesn't want it. Great effort and a blooding of poor B. get him into the cat carrier. In response to which he howls piercingly, and tries to break out by physical force. As the carrier shakes on the floor I think of our friends' application of Dunsany's "Chu-bu and Sheemish" to the relationship between their cats, and remember the line, "he had chosen a little earthquake as the miracle most easily accomplished by a small god."

Thursday, December 5, 2019

sign of the

An article in the Guardian concerning a renewed exchange of incivilities between DT and Kim bears the headline: I shall taunt you a second time.

Thus proving both the cultural ubiquity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the extreme silliness of the subjects of the article.

(PS: And there's an article in the New Yorker this week which could have, after Tom Lehrer, been called "And the Hindus hate the Moslems ..." We've already had enough articles proving the truth of the next line.)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


1. Kamala Harris has dropped out of the presidential race. Too bad, as she was our candidate. This is what happens when the race is all-in from the beginning, with debates this early out and so on: the sorting process occurs before anybody has had the chance to vote. There'll probably be only two or three candidates, excluding obscure cranks, left by New Hampshire, or by the day after.

2. Today is something called Giving Tuesday. Never heard of it, don't actually believe it. It seems merely an excuse for a lot of arts groups, that I don't want to block or unsubscribe to, to send me spam. I hope they stop quick.

3. I don't know if Americans reading this have heard the story of the heroic Lukasz, a Polish chef resident in London, who faced off the murderous terrorist at London Bridge armed with nothing but a narwhal tusk he'd grabbed from the wall. It's been making the rounds in Britain, even used as armament in the Brexit wars (see, immigrants! useful in an emergency!). But if you listen carefully to this account of the details, you'll be told that Lukasz and the guy wielding the narwhal tusk are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. What Lukasz takes down from the wall is described as "a long stick" and later as a "pole". He fights off the terrorist by himself for a minute, and then is joined by two other guys, the one with the fire extinguisher (conspicuous in some of the video of the event) and the one who grabs the narwhal tusk. The transcript caption writes "animal" but the speaker clearly says "narwhal", and later he uses the word again in the same context. All of these defenders were heroic, but, if this is to be believed, the solo facedown with the narwhal tusk NEVER HAPPENED. He had some other long stick or pole instead, probably a lot larger. Even the person who put this on Twitter didn't notice that the story contradicts the popular narrative. Is the speaker confused, or has EVERYBODY ELSE got it WRONG?

not what it might look like

A potentially misleading entry in the contents list for Tolkien Studies 16, for instance as displayed here, has been brought to my attention.

In this display, the separated sub-entry for most of the article entries is the author of the article. Thus, Richard C. West is the author of this year's "In Memoriam," he is not the subject of it. The subject is the late scholar Jared C. Lobdell, who died in March of 2019. Richard West kindly supplied us a bio and appreciation. His authorship is not listed in the table of contents of our issue, but his byline does appear at the end of the obituary, so some enthusiastic analyzers of our issue (also breaking apart the book reviews section into individual contributions, which we also don't do) may have added this. (I haven't yet checked Project MUSE, our online distributor, to see if that's where this comes from.)

Monday, December 2, 2019

silent night

The tree is up. The (non-fragile) ornaments are up. The cats are (mostly) leaving it alone. So far so good. On to other things,


1) Some carols and some more carols, played by an ensemble of four bass clarinets. Wild!

1a) The ensemble is named Edmund Welles. They don't say where they got that name from, but could it have been from here?

2) Some people wonder how to incorporate acknowledgement of Hanukkah into their holiday celebrations. Easy: Don't let Christmas co-opt Hanukkah. Don't treat Hanukkah as some exotic variety of Christmas, and don't act as if Christmas is the universal celebration and all the non-Christians ought to just join in. Here's a cautionary tale of how not to do it.

and not:

3) The state law to protect Uber and Lyft drivers that could affect my job too. It's all freelancers, and I'm a freelance journalist. It sets a limit of 35 bylines a year before you're a staffer. I think that leaves me all right, especially if (as implied) it means per client instead of total. Many are indignant, but I tend to think that if you're writing every week for a weekly paper, then you are a staffer and ought to be treated and paid like one. That doesn't mean you have to be full-time, as people apparently think.

4) What happens to children separated from their parents. This is about things like Trump's border patrols and Ceaușescu's orphanages, but I think of the time when, aged 2, I wandered away from home before my mother noticed. I was found on a nearby high-school campus by some students, who called the police who quickly restored me to my mother, but these days they'd probably suspect her of neglect and put me, at least temporarily, into foster care. Knowing myself as a small child, that would have been utterly traumatic and would probably have scarred me for life. And that's how they think they're protecting the children.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

cat meets tree

I was expecting this to be a much more interesting story than it is.

We acquired Tybalt in February. He was, we were told, 12 months old at the time, and he was very much still a kitten. He's slowed down a bit since then, but only a bit, and still demands playing with great frequency. But his most frequent habits are to get in everything - wastebaskets, the kitchen sink - and to eat anything he can find. Once I accidentally dropped a couple wooden ends of asparagus stalks on the kitchen floor, and was surprised to see Tybalt eat them, both of them. I let him do it because it was a most amazing sight.

So what would he do when he saw his first Christmas tree? I set up our artificial tree today. Severian used to climb the tree. Would Tybalt? No; he watched with curiosity but didn't attempt to go up. He did, however, twice try to nibble the plastic needles. I buffed him off that in a hurry, and even more when he tried to chew the power cord for the tree's installed lights, but after that he left it alone.

So when B. puts the ornaments on ...

Friday, November 29, 2019


My contribution to the family Thanksgiving table is usually a veggie dish, since I make so many of them at home and everybody else tends to bring dessert. Recently I've been making roasted broccoli, which keeps well for the couple hours between coming out of my oven and being set out on our niece's kitchen counter, and which has gotten its share of compliments. But this year I decided on something different.

B's youngest sister, who died last summer, was the family's mistress of what we called the greenie beanie casserole. Perhaps you've had this too; it's a common dish, made with frozen green beans and a can of cream of mushroom soup, plus a package of toasted onions. Since she's gone, we will have this no more.

But I found a recipe for the same dish made with fresh green beans and fresh mushrooms. I looked it over and decided I could do this, so I did, as a memorial for Jo. Bought the veggies at the best of the local produce markets, and prepared everything except for the final mixing and baking at home in the morning. Brought the creamed mushrooms (surprisingly easy to make) in the casserole dish, the blanched green beans in a tupperware container, and the split toasted onions in baggies, and hit it to the oven at the right moment. I was pleased at how well it came out: the beans were cooked just right and never stringy, and while I don't much like mushrooms, the pieces were tolerable and the cream sauce actually good.

Next time I may try making it with home-made cream of celery done the same way.

This dish also marked a notable landmark for me. The big 26-ounce canister of salt, which I've been using ever since I was in college, finally came to emptiness. I always wondered if I'd outlive that. Now I have to buy a new one, but I think it will be a smaller size.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

some posthumous thanks

Just a moment to post here before prepping for family Thanksgiving, so here's my chance to give thanks for the lives and work of Clive James and Jonathan Miller, two great British cultural figures who've left us within the past few days.

James, who was Australian by origin and continued affiliation, but lived in the UK most of his adult life, did much creative writing particularly poetry, but is best known for his literary reviews, which showed much perception as well as wit. My favorite bodies of his writing are his travel accounts, usually of visits to specific places, which nearly always began with a description of the plane flight he took to get there; and his short and punchy television reviews. He won my allegiance with one that began "The gymnastics and the swimming having finally been got out of the road, the Olympics settled down to the task of boring you rigid with the track and field events," though it turned out his disdain for the Olympics didn't survive the swell of patriotism when they were held in Sydney.

Jonathan Miller won fame as one of the four Oxbridge students who put Oxbridge student humour on the map with the show Beyond the Fringe (here he is there being learnedly Oxbridgian with Alan Bennett) and then became something of a cultural polymath and one of Britain's leading directors of theatre and opera. Some rare footage of him directing the initial cast of his famous ENO production of The Mikado; if you haven't seen the result, it's here: Act 1 and Act 2.

Among the recently departed, I'm also grateful for William Ruckelshaus, the second hero of the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973. Whether his and Richardson's likes exist today remains questionable.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Restaurant Critic Crashes the White House Turkey Pardon

more British detail

I wish to make a subtle correction to the historical comment of a British political think-tank director quoted at the end of this article. He compares what might happen after the current general election with what happened after the last such election held in December, in 1923. “The Conservatives throwing away a majority and the first Labour government ever being ushered in with the support of the Liberals,” he said. “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”

Besides the fact that the Conservatives don't have a majority this time, I wish to quibble with the word support as used of the Liberals in the 1923-24 situation. The Liberals didn't support the Labour government, they consented to it. There's a difference, and since the scenario being mooted in the current election is of a massive anti-Brexit coalition, it's a big difference. There was no anti-tariff coalition in the earlier case, even though that issue separated both Labour and Liberal from the Conservatives. Labour, though a minority, governed entirely on their own. There was no consultation with the Liberals as "support" implies. Labour didn't trust the Liberals and wished to avoid being dragged down by them.

Instead, Labour sailed on and did what they wanted to do, held back by the fact that the Liberals could turn them out at any time, but pushed forward by the fact that the Liberals didn't want another election any more than Labour did. In the event, a controversy caused the government's fall after only eight months, and the Conservatives won the ensuing election. Not an enticing parallel for the anti-Brexit parties, if it is a parallel at all.

another task

The first rainstorm of the season was due yesterday afternoon (it's still beating down on us early the next morning: typical California winter storm, no cloudbursts but long steady rain), so I needed to take in some items that had been left on the patio, which in turn meant I needed to do something we don't do often around here: open the garage door.

We don't use the garage door often because we don't keep a car in there: we use it for storage. It's a sectional door which runs on an electric motor, which is loud and grindy, and has been as long as we've lived here, but it never did before what it did this time, which is get stuck.

A hasty phone call later, enter a small truck with two men who specialize in garage doors. The motor is worn out, as are the gears. They have a new mechanism on their truck, so I hire them to replace the whole thing. Busy job that takes over an hour, as the rain begins to drizzle down. Not tremendously expensive considering the amount of work involved and the new equipment. It can be scheduled to open automatically at pre-set times. It can be made to open over wi-fi. I don't want either of those things. I want the open/close button and the button that turns on and off the lights. That's it. And it's astonishingly quiet.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

book review

A Man of Parts by David Lodge

This is a novel in the form of a biography, or possibly a biography in the form of a novel, about H.G. Wells. Lodge had written a previous biographical novel, about Henry James, but I never succeeded in reading that one, because I'm not very interested in Henry James. (James, who knew Wells, is a character in the present book, but I found the material on James to be about the least interesting part.) I am more interested in H.G. Wells, though, or at least I came to be interested, because it says virtually nothing about Wells's SF, which is the part of him I know best.

This book concentrates almost entirely on two aspects of Wells. One is his career as a societal reformer and prophet of the near future, mostly around the first decade of the 20C, when most of the book takes place. (Wells predicted a world war, but not really soon.) There's much about his interaction with the Fabian Society during that period.

The other is his personal life, which means mainly his sex life. This is absolutely hair-raising, particularly half a century before the sexual revolution. Even at age 50, Wells was so magnetizing that every beautiful and intelligent 20-year-old woman he met threw herself at him and demanded a sexual affair, and he was happy to oblige. The reader is liable to roll eyes at this and suspect the novelist's overheated imagination, but all these affairs really happened, and the recorded aftermaths suggest they happened pretty much this way.

The affairs are rather sad stories, though. The women start out as shining and eager to embrace life, and the sex with H.G. is great, but he has to pack them off into isolation for social propriety's sake, and then he can't give them his undivided attention, and they get bored and cranky. This happens over and over. At one point Wells is asked, don't you ever learn?, and he replies, I guess I don't. In addition to this, somehow he manages to marry the only two women of his age he knows who don't like sex.

Lodge incorporates a lot of imagined conversations into his story, but they fit well, and his research has been prodigious and is well-integrated into the story. (I caught one tiny mistake in the political history of the period: it's on p. 146.) Lodge's manner of laying out exposition (some of the best of it in a running imagined interview with Wells in which the above question is posed) and of covering a story that takes place over many years entirely fits what I want in this kind of novel, which is why I found it so compulsively readable, despite a pretty hefty length, over 400 pages.

Its treatment of Wells as a writer is curious. He writes easily, and is often described as going off to spend an entire morning, or indeed a hermetic span of weeks, doing nothing but writing, but we the readers hardly ever see him doing it, the way we see him having the even more private activity of sex. This is a weird imbalance I've seen in other novels relating the sex life of writers or indeed anybody who does something other than have sex. Usually the sex is the only part described in detail, although at least here you get the social reform activity too.

Several of Wells's novels are described in detail, but only the ones that draw, if distantly, on his own life. After a while, this selectivity becomes conspicuous.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of good material in here, and a renowned supporting cast, including - besides Henry James - Bernard Shaw, E. Nesbit, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ford Madox Ford, and a lot of other authors and celebrities of the time and place whom it's not surprising Wells knew. And there's a lot of great lines. In the imaginary interview, Wells is depicted as saying about Bernard Shaw, "His real point of view was hard to pin down, as usual. He liked to goad people into re-examining their assumptions, but all he usually succeeded in doing was to annoy the hell out of them," which is about as good a summary of Shaw as you're likely to get.
Wells had generated a lot of controversy for depicting extramarital affairs in some of his novels, but the book's summary of his later novel The History of Mr. Polly, a comedy featuring arson, insurance fraud, faked death, and other shenanigans, concludes: "It was the most immoral story [Wells] had ever written, but the British public received it without a murmur of disapproval because there wasn't a word in it about sex."

One more thing about the sex. It is commonplace these days to describe self-declared "incels" as men who believe that beautiful women owe them sex, and to mock them for this absurd self-aggrandizement. But that's not what the incels I've read actually say. What they do is point to men like the H.G. Wells in this book, and say, "Here are men who treat women shabbily but get unlimited sex. Why can't I, who try to be more polite than that, get some too?" That's a much more reasonable question. I think I know the answer, but they're not going to like it.

Monday, November 25, 2019

concert review: Redwood Symphony

As I wrote in the review, the value of this program lay in its purpose-written concert music, but I used the presence of not one but two chunks of film music in the repertoire to have a say about the presence of film music on concert programs.

To be blunter than I normally manage in a review, I don't think it belongs there. I came to this view from listening to it on our low-brow classical radio station, KDFC, where it doesn't belong either. I find that, when I turn the radio on, I can always correctly identify if the piece being played is film music. Although it uses symphony orchestra and is written by composers with classical training, it's not classical music but a different genre. It just sounds profoundly different. The main difference, I think, is that while classical music, especially of the minimalist variety, can achieve stasis, it's still active while it does so. Film music aspires to motionlessness.

I'm speaking here of the music of recent decades for drama films (as opposed to both comedies and action flicks), which both of the pieces at this concert are. Such films are usually romances with heartwarming or heartbreaking endings, and the music is intended to underpin that mood. Which it can do very well; it's just that it's very different from the way classical music works.

I wanted to listen to music from these movies before it was played at the concert. I'd seen Cider House Rules when it came out, but I don't remember a thing about it. I found a soundtrack album online, and as I listened I was overwhelmed with a sense of familiarity. Where else had I heard this before? It was also in a movie score ... it was a Jane Austen adaptation ... Sense and Sensibility? ... no, Emma. That was it, Emma. Quick check for the credits of Emma, and guess who composed the music? Same person. There you go.

That was by far the closest to Cider House Rules, but I listened around to a bunch of other Portman soundtracks, and they all sounded pretty much like that too. Desperate to see if she could do anything different, I scanned her credit list for something, anything, that I recognized as not a wistful romance flick. Ah, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. OK, that's certainly different. Listened to some of the music of that: exactly the same sense of motionless stasis as the rest, just a different tone.

As for The Shape of Water, I remembered that movie all right, but I'd paid no attention to the music, because when you watch a movie, you're not supposed to. Listening to some of that online created the reaction I put in the review: this doesn't sound like a creature living underwater, this sounds like Parisian café music.

I was particularly gobsmacked by the composer's explanation for his inclusion of the bandoneón. The creature is from South America; the bandoneón is from South America; therefore, in his primitive mind, they go together. But the creature is from the Amazon somewhere, while the bandoneón is typically played in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. I actually got out my globe to measure how far those cities are from the Amazon. Over two thousand miles. No wonder I don't associate any underwater creature with a bandoneón, no matter where he comes from.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


Ad for eggs: "We're thankful for eggs made with fresh air & sunshine."

And a chicken! Don't forget that!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

day up in the City

An invitation wafted into the Daily Journal's mailbox and was tossed in my direction, so that's why I was one of some 30 people in a restaurant around the corner from Davies Symphony Hall for a press luncheon for the impending local residency of the Violins of Hope.

This is the name given to a collection of some 85 violins that belonged to victims, survivors, or refugees of the Nazi Holocaust. Some of them were played in concentration camps. Some of them were given up by their owners after the war because of the bad memories. They all wound up in the hands of an Israeli luthier who restored them (some of them requiring a lot of that, as you can imagine) and has put them out on tour. The idea is that the violins, or at least the most high-quality ones, are to be played in concert by local performers, and they and the audience can think noble thoughts of hope and resilience while this is going on.

I'd known there were going to be some concerts of this kind here early next year, but it wasn't until I saw the well-organized calendar on the website that I realized just how extensive the program will be: numerous chamber music concerts, orchestral concerts, klezmer concerts, all featuring the violins; plus lectures, demonstrations, panel discussions, films, and museum exhibits, lasting two months. Music at Kohl Mansion, the chamber music series that's the chief sponsor, has commissioned a song cycle from noted opera composer Jake Heggie and his frequent librettist Gene Scheer, written in the persona of the violins, to be sung by Sasha Cooke, accompanied by those same violins.

As we incongruously dined on hamburgers or chicken salad while talking of the Holocaust, Heggie spoke, Cooke spoke, the director of Kohl (a child of Holocaust survivors herself: I've known her for years, and I had not known that) spoke, and various other people running the local project spoke. One of them was the museum curator who's overseeing the exhibits. She spoke of incorporating train imagery into the main exhibit, due to all the historical resonance it has. Since she's not a musician, I wondered if she knew of Steve Reich's Different Trains, perhaps the most significant musical response to the Holocaust. So I asked her afterwards. She hadn't; she has now.

Although I find something quaint and curious about the whole notion of Violins of Hope, this project is clearly a major local event musically, and since much of it will be taking place in the Daily Journal's home territory, it'll be worth some writeup in my columns there.

After that was over, I spent the afternoon in the city library nearby. Since it has a good music books collection, I dug out some recent books on the topic on my reading want list and browsed them over. A book on 19th century American symphonies, a repertoire of truly monumental obscurity. A book on the anti-German hysteria that overtook the US musical world in 1917-18. A book on the history of the Stalin Prize: how'd you like to be on a musical awards committee with Stalin looking over your shoulder the entire time? And another collection of essays on Russian musical history by Richard Taruskin. He says in his introduction that he's mellowed out and become less contentious than in his previous collections. Who is he fooling? He's just as contentious as ever, defending Rimsky-Korsakov from charges of being a hack, defending Mussorgsky from Rimsky-Korsakov, defending Tchaikovsky from claims that he committed suicide, defending Shostakovich from Volkov and his acolytes, defending musical groups' right to cancel performances of pro-Stalin or anti-Semitic music, and defending Stravinsky from just about anything. I agree with Taruskin a lot more than I disagree, but my, is he exhausting.

The reason I stayed on was because I had a ticket to SFS at Davies that evening. Manfred Honeck conducting Bruckner's Fourth: I couldn't miss that. Honeck's recent recording of the Ninth with his home orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, has been getting good reviews and making end of the year lists, and they recorded the Fourth a while back.

This was in some ways a perfect performance. Each note was played exactly as it should be, every swell and fade was precisely of the right intensity, the flow and shape of the music was ideal, Robert Ward played every one of the extensive horn solos without the slightest hitch or bobble. So then why did it feel a little dull? This wasn't just me; the applause afterwards was warm but not wild as it had been for Canellakis's Shostakovich Seventh. Was it too perfect; to be precise, too perfectly controlled? Was it too predictable? - at every moment I knew not only exactly what was to happen next, but how. The only flaw I heard was that some passages were rather too smoothly polished; one for strings with a more typically Brucknerian roughness really stood out.

Also on the program, Mozart's E-flat piano concerto, K. 482 - supposedly one of his more obscure major works, but I've heard it here three times in the last four years - with Leif Ove Andsnes pouring out pure liquid streams of notes. Honeck conducted by shaking his arms around a lot; this produced an elegant and satisfyingly curvaceous Mozartean sound.

For once, the Millbrae train was the first into the BART station when I got there after the concert, but for once, I didn't need it; as I'd come up in the morning I'd parked at Daly City instead of San Bruno, my usual stop for an evening visit (difference in traffic congestion and parking space availability). Good thing I remembered that, instead of absently continuing to my usual stop.

Monday, November 18, 2019

it's alive

How pleasant it is to be able to connect to the internet, to sit at home and read web pages and one's e-mail. What's that you say, it's just an ordinary thing? Not after three days without it.

Several months ago, when we finally got our balky and frequently non-functional modem replaced with a competent new one, the otherwise helpful AT&T repair person did not disconnect or take away the old power supply in the form of a large grey box that sat next to the modem. We did not then know that it was obsolete.

We found that out when it started beeping until I found the sound switch and made it stop. The alarm was to say that the battery was failing. I phoned up the second-tier help line that I always use. They said it was obsolete, but they also said that we'd need to replace the modem along with it. I kept explaining that the modem had already been replaced, and since it was working fine I didn't want to risk replacing it again. But their script read "replace modem" and I couldn't get them off it. So I gave up and kept the thing.

What I wasn't told this time was that when the battery finally failed the modem would go dead. That's what happened three days ago. It was only after puzzling over and tinkering with the modem for some time that I realized what the problem must be. This time when I called the help line I just said the modem was dead, and they made a technician appointment, but not until Monday.

In the meantime, I thought I might be able to buy the power cable for the model of modem we have. Nope. AT&T store carries no such thing. Neither does Target. I can't think of anywhere else around here more likely. Clerks at both places recommended Fry's. I said, "Have you been to Fry's within the last few years?" They said no. Once the bursting emporia for all things electronic or electric (as well as the other needs of the traditional male techie's life: two kinds of magazines, computer and men's; two kinds of consumables, potato chips and soda), its vast stores are now nearly-deserted empty spaces. How they stay in business has actually been the topic of puzzled local newspaper articles. And Radio Shack is also gone.

I could of course order the cable online, but it wouldn't get here before the technician did, so why bother? An hour before the appointment window, he phoned and said he'd be here in 30. (Our phone works because I avoided the temptation to hook it up to the internet service.) He was here in 30, too. I explained the situation, he tested the line just to make sure and then replaced the power cord with the sleek new one, no giant grey box, and took the old one away. He also rebooted our TV set, which hadn't occurred to me would be necessary and would have taken some fumbling if I'd had to do it on my own. No charge, no need to replace the modem, and he was quickly gone, the only trauma being to Maia, who ran off when the doorbell rang and took refuge ... in the room with the modem in it.

Friday, November 15, 2019

"That's not 'Let It Go,' it's 'Let It Be.'"

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

cat toys

For Tybalt, everything is a cat toy. He'll push and chase toy mice around the floor, but he seems to prefer to do the same with things like binder clips and floss picks, the latter of which he digs out of the bag they come in and spreads around the room.

But better than self-playing toys he has to initiate playing with, he likes toys that require human intervention, and he'll sit around meowing piteously until you play with him. And of these, his favorites are plush critters on a stick. A plush toy, in the shape of a fish or bird, is attached to a string, and the string is on a short pole, so it looks a bit like a fishing rod. I flick the rod so the plush toy lands somewhere, Tybalt stares and wiggles at it from a distance and then makes a dash, and I usually flick the toy up and move it somewhere else, repeat process. Sometimes he'll take a mighty leap into the air as the toy goes up.

His favorite of these had a fairly short string, and the plush was in the form of an ornamental goldfish. (We also have one made of yarn in the shape of a jellyfish.) The string was fairly short on the goldfish one, so its movements were easily controllable.

Unfortunately, eventually he pulled the toy off the string.

I thought he'd liked the goldfish toy. Not as much as he likes the string. I wiggle the string around on the floor and he goes frantic, splaying his claws out everywhere in an attempt to catch the thing. Even when he does, it usually slips out easily from between his claws. But every once in a while, he does catch it. Then he puts the string in his mouth, from which it cannot easily be slipped out. So at that point I just drop the pole, and he trots off, carrying the string, pole dangling behind him, and takes the toy always to the same place, which is the floor by one side of our bed. There he leaves it.

What his plan is, I don't know, but he definitely has one.

Monday, November 11, 2019

concert review: Music@Menlo

Previous Menlo "residencies" - chamber music concerts with a topical theme, preceded by a lecture on the theme - have made sense. This one I reviewed, and had trouble expressing as coherent.

The theme was purportedly the 19th century burgeoning of the arts in Russia and how the Soviets repressed it in the 20th century. The 19th-century entry was Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, a work by a composer who didn't believe that chamber music for strings and piano worked well together, and proved it by the way that he wrote for the instruments: separately, as if they were unconnected.

And the 20th-century entries were both by Shostakovich, a good choice to trace the history of Soviet oppression in music, except that one of them pre-dated the Soviets learning to be artistically repressive, and the other after the Stalinist era had long since faded away, and the people were under the dull blankness of the Brezhnev era. On top of which, Shostakovich was now obsessed by death and no longer very interested in political activity. On top of which the Soviets were never very interested in censoring chamber music anyway, which is why Shostakovich turned to it so intensely in the gruesome later days of Stalinism.

There's only so much I can convey of this tangle in a short review which also has to cover other things. But there's one bit of writing in the review I'm pleased with. The presence of a pianist named Solzhenitsyn raises an obvious question; note how I salt the answer to that question in near the end of the final paragraph.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

two concerts

The two concerts I attended yesterday I went to because they were irresistible.

In the evening, the San Jose Chamber Music Society, now firmly placed in the music school auditorium on campus, hosted our great local pianist Jon Nakamatsu and the Modigliani String Quartet (from France) in the Brahms Piano Quintet, my favorite of all chamber music works. The Modigliani had shown themselves in the non-piano first half of the program to be an ensemble of a unified, silken tone, and Nakamatsu is a pianist who adapts his playing to its context, so it took a while for this grouping without that much grit in its playing to ramp itself up to the ferocity of the best Brahms, but the last two movements were all that could be asked for.

In the afternoon I was at the small side room of the Mountain View CPA for players from the Peninsula Symphony in a cut-down, ten-player chamber version of Beethoven's Eroica. That was basically one player per part. It was fun to listen to, and the first violinist, who was an uncanny dead ringer for John Hertz in looks, voice, and speaking style, gave an introductory talk on Beethoven and lucid individual descriptions of each movement. He didn't go on too long, so OK, he wasn't entirely like John Hertz.

What I didn't know until I got there was that this was just the second half of the program. The first half was a classical guitarist, playing mostly semi-pop pieces from South America. One piece with a continuous tremolo I didn't like. The rest was pleasant enough, but the amount of guitar music I want to listen to at once is very, very limited.

After the San Jose concert ended at 9:45, I stopped in at Pensfa, which was conveniently located on the way home. Just four people there before me, and some were quickly fading, but we had a little bit of good conversation, mostly on the topic of flaky people who invite you somewhere and then don't do the thing they invited you to join them in.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

NMCO generally springs its concert announcements late and one at a time, so if I'm to review them for the Daily Journal, and they're on my regular list, I have to grab them when they seem likely. This one was appealing: it featured Czech music, and included a piece by Vítězslava Kaprálová, who is the other modern Eastern European woman composer I was trying to think of after the Bacewicz festival I attended last month. Though whether Kaprálová, who died at only 25, wrote enough music to populate a festival I'm not sure.

I noted in the review that the concert lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours, which meant I gave up on the attempt to attend a San Jose Chamber Orchestra concert that began 20 miles away half an hour later, even though I'd brought a snack to eat in the car in lieu of dinner. The sacrifices we make for art.

Friday, November 8, 2019

o to be a commentator

1. I linked to this yesterday: raising the question of how to respond to a problem by saying "Why didn't you just ...?" without sounding like you're criticizing them; you ask because you actually want to know what's wrong with that solution.
It occurs to me that there are other problems of this sort. The logical-fallacy rebuttal assumes that the arguments were offered as logical proof, but I'm convinced they're used instead as triage. Thus, when I use a tu quoque, what I mean is not "You didn't apply your own argument to yourself, therefore that proves it wrong" but "You obviously don't really believe your own argument, so why should I give it consideration?" There's also what's called mansplaining. When I do something like that to someone who clearly knows the subject, my intent is to say "Here's my understanding of the situation. Tell me where it's insufficient or wrong." But it can be hard to make that clear, or easy to omit it, in the rush of conversation.

2. Jane Austen as a horror writer, that is, it would be horrible to be a woman of her time, even a privileged one. Well, yes, and doesn't Austen make it clear both how necessary and how difficult it is to escape from durance vile? But what really exercises the writer is people who practice Austen re-creations. She's bothered by the celebration of that world. So see the comments by Sherwood Smith. She mentions the SCA: note that its motto is (or used to be) "The Middle Ages as they should have been." That is, with modern conveniences, modern notions of human worth, and on both accounts no need for most people to be wretched servants. People who go to Austen weekends (and I've done this) are there for the parts of her world that they like. Me, I was there for the dancing. Nothing else. (Though I do like her novels, and was happy to discuss them.) I like that kind of dancing, and it's hard to find elsewhere.
But would this defense also apply to re-creations of antebellum Southern plantations? Or does the presence of chattel slavery in the real thing cross a line that other forms of servitude don't? But if so, it should be noted that many of the cultures re-created in the SCA had chattel slavery, and even Austen's Mansfield Park was funded by slavery (as the movie makes clearer than the book does). I think the difference is the one Sherwood implies in her comments: there are people today actually defending the chattel slavery of the antebellum South. Nobody's occupying our current political discourse defending the inequities of the societies commemorated by Janeites or the SCA.

3. This article is about the Kentucky governor's election, but that's not why I'm linking to it. I'm using it as a good example of a standard journalistic writing practice that I find irksome. "Senate President Robert Stivers" is introduced in the first paragraph. He then does not reappear until the next to last paragraph, where he's referred to merely as "Stivers." By that time, though, I'd forgotten who "Stivers" was, and I'd had no indication from the first paragraph that I was supposed to remember him (unlike Governor Bevin, whom I hadn't known either, but who is clearly the subject of the article). Rather than re-read the whole thing, I had to use my browser's word search to locate the previous reference. This problem occurs for me in news articles all the time.

4. When did the 1940s/50s birth cohort become the symbol of resistance to the concept of climate change? Our generation was the one, or part of the one, that invented environmental awareness: Earth Day was in 1970, when we were in our teens and 20s. It was a commonplace at the time that we had only until the end of the century to clean the environment up, and people tried. That was what the generation symbolized, and I stand with that. How could the likes of W. and DT become put up as leaders of the generation? Back in the day, they would have been considered the over-privileged airhead sons of (then more famous) fathers, as Eric and DJTJ are today, not worth treating as representative of anything.
Note how I avoid the term "boomer". The younger politician who used it in the article claims to be mystified as to why "some people" get "very mad" at the use of "the literal title of their generation." But who officially enacted that title? I consider "boomer" an offensive term, on the level of a racial epithet, so don't call me that. Them's fightin' words.

5. And just to show which side I'm on: What I like about AOC. (Videos included.)

6. Politics note no. 2: No commentators I saw noted this in connection with this week's election, but South Bend has just elected Pete Buttigieg's successor as mayor. Pete's out of office come January.

Thursday, November 7, 2019


Being able to drive around in a car is convenient, but one of the most vexing things about it is often finding a place to put the car when you're done driving it. In other words, parking shortages. I've fantasized about inventing a car that you can fold up and put in your pocket when you're done using it. That it would still weigh a ton is only one of the problems with this fantasy.

One place where parking was tolerable but has recently become much worse is the San Jose airport. I learned from today's edition of "Mr. Roadshow," the newspaper's traffic Q&A column, that the off-airport lot I've been using for years and years has closed. It's a sad story, and not just for the feral cats that lived there and enlivened our visits. They used to have a different and superior lot, then they closed that and moved to this rather ratty one (in more than one sense, hence the cats), on the major road that runs behind the airport. This is just down the street from SJ's major league soccer stadium, which can be a problem as I learned the time I needed to arrive at the airport just before a game. (I also learned that the parking lot was renting some of its spaces to game patrons.) Then the construction of new buildings arrived, and half the parking lot closed. Now, it turns out, the other half has closed. (The letter-writer said only "it appears they have closed," presumably from driving past an already rather enigmatic-looking entrance, but I checked the vendor's website and it's true.)

The columnist says that the airport is building more on-site parking, but it will take a while, and they'll have to close some of their existing parking for construction.

I'm going to note down here the options that I can think of. I'm recording this more for my own notes than for reading, but in order to head off "Why don't you just ...?" questions, I'll begin with some I'm ruling out.

1. Take a shuttle. No. I turned to off-airport parking in the first place after some horrible experiences with commercial shuttles.

2. Take a taxi/rideshare. Expensive, as we're over ten miles from the airport. Only in an emergency, dahlink.

3. Take public transit. Theoretically possible, but there's no long-term parking around the transit stations here either. Even more theoretically, I could take the (infrequent) bus that stops behind my house, transfer to another (infrequent) bus, transfer to the commuter train, and then transfer to the shuttle bus to the airport, but that sounds awkward with luggage and would take a very long time, and probably be impractical with an early-morning departure or late-night arrival.

4. Have someone drive me. Really there's only B, so it'd only work when I'm traveling alone, and she hates to drive, especially maneuvering around crowded airports. We've tried it, but it really doesn't work.

5. On-site parking. Definitely possible. Some of the lots are often full, but at least the airport has a web page giving real-time status. The lots run $18/day up, and the most expensive garage is $38/day and right next to one of the terminals. For a trip of only a couple of days, that's manageable, and I've actually used this recently for short trips, because it's actually easier to get your luggage there than taking the shuttle out to the off-airport lot, because the airport keeps moving the pickup zone farther and farther out to make more and more room for Uber and Lyft.

6. A different off-airport lot. I know there are some, because I see their shuttle buses at the pickup zone. But I can't find them online (googling "sjc parking" produces mostly third-party links to the one that's closed) and I don't remember their names, which are very non-specific. Here's what I might do, but I'll wait till after the holidays to do it. (I'm not flying anywhere for quite a while.) I'll drive down to the airport and go sit in the pickup zone for a while, write down the names from the shuttle buses and then go look them up. Sometimes getting your info from the real world instead of online is a really good idea.

7. A different airport. Most emphatically possible. SFO is only 30 miles away, they have a really efficient off-airport lot that I always use when I fly there, and sometimes, despite the greater distance and greater size of the airport, it's more convenient to use it anyway. For instance, I used it to fly to Calgary because SFO has nonstops and SJC doesn't.

So those are my options, recorded for future use.

concert review: Bomsori Kim and Juho Pohjonen

Two violin and piano recitals within a week? Usually I go for bigger chamber ensembles than that. But this one was the SF Performances Gift Concert, an annual treat put on for donors and subscribers. They're worth going to because the performers are usually outstanding.

This was the first I'd heard of Bomsori Kim - indeed, this was her SF debut - but Juho Pohjonen is a familiar name from the Menlo festival. Kim, playing a late 18C violin, had a particularly smooth and enrapturing tone, moderately dark and heavy, but not overly so. I could listen to a great deal of it.

This concert included - not in performing order - two full sonatas: a dark and brooding late-period one from Schumann (Op. 105 in A minor) and a light and chipper one from Prokofiev (his Second). The Schumann extremely emphasized the violin over the piano, perhaps odd considering that the composer was a pianist, albeit long retired when he wrote this.

Plus: a few wetly soppy salon pieces by - of all people - Sibelius, and some grittier and more interesting (pianistically as well as violinistically) salon pieces by Szymanowski. And a showpiece: a fantasy on themes from Carmen compiled by Franz Waxman for his buddy Jascha Heifetz. About 3/4 Carmen to 1/4 ornament, the ornaments often including running one's finger up the string to the highest position and playing the resulting squeak.

Bizarrely, the Sibelius salon pieces were written during WW1. They don't sound like it. The Szymanowski pieces likewise, but more plausibly. They both had quiet wars, Szymanowski on his family estate in what's now western Ukraine, or at least quiet until the Bolsheviks burned the house and threw Szymanowski's piano in the lake. And Prokofiev's was written during WW2.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

in defense of Trader Joe's

Kevin Drum, whom I usually agree with, says he's found the secret behind Trader Joe's. He says, "basically, they sell a limited selection of generic stuff but they put fun labels on it."

I kind of wonder if he's been there. True, you can buy some stuff at Trader Joe's that you can buy at other places, but can you imagine a grocer's that only sold unique items? I've been in a few, and they were rank and dusty and way too exotic for me.

But I go to Trader Joe's to buy things that I can't find everywhere else, or pretty much of anywhere else, and there's plenty of them. In fact, I've just come back, and my bags - Trader Joe's canvas bags, far sturdier than any others I've found - are full of:

*frozen quick-pan-cook meals, of which my favorites are Kung Pao Chicken and Seafood Paella
*other frozen meals, of which I've had the Korma Fish Curry before, and some new to me: Bibimbap Bowl, Shrimp Seafood Burgers, and (this looks excitingly multicultural) Philly Cheesesteak Bao Buns
*snacks: Popcorn with Herbs & Spices, which I've never seen anywhere else; Popcorn with Olive Oil, which Safeway carries sometimes, but not consistently; Blister Peanuts, a particularly tasty form I've not seen anywhere else; Marcona Almonds, usually findable elsewhere but only in gourmet groceries
*Challah, and I've never seen that outside a Jewish bakery
*Jicama sticks, not unknown in this form but not very common

Other items I saw on the shelf but didn't buy this time:
*Lobster Ravioli, another variety of which Lucky used to carry, but not any more
*Baby Red Potatoes, B's favorite, which may sometimes be found in general markets but not consistently
*Salmon Fillets, BBQ Cut: everybody carries salmon, but these are an unusual cut of even thickness and thus good on the grill: my usual choice if I want fish for a summer bbq
*Frozen Minced Garlic Cubes: while it's now often possible to get minced garlic (my preference) in jars elsewhere, you used to have to go to the garlic outlets in Gilroy to find it; and this is cubes, which is different.

I didn't see the Gravenstein Apple Juice, which is probably seasonal, and I guess they no longer carry Riced Broccoli, which was slivers of cut broccoli designed to be used in place of rice: an interesting idea which I found didn't quite work.

Trader Joe's has also carried lots of irreplaceable items that they've dropped from their stock over the years, and none of them have ever appeared elsewhere. The one I most miss is the only really good Canned Chili I've ever had.

That's for my taste: I'm sure you'd have plenty others of your own.

I don't do my normal staples shopping at Trader Joe's, in part because their selections are sketchy, but they have plenty of things worth going there for that, no, I can't find everywhere else.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

cat on a football field

This may be the only sports story I'll ever post.

I like the bit in the clip where the cat runs into the end zone and the announcer yells "Touchdown!"

why I still use a clamshell phone

It prevents this.

The title says "all of us." Not me, buddy.

Monday, November 4, 2019

concert review: Joshua Bell and Alessio Bax

Joshua Bell, heap big famous violinist. (Alessio Bax, also fairly well-known as a pianist to anybody who's been going to Music@Menlo.) I knew this would be popular, so I arrived at Bing exceedingly early. It didn't help.

First I got waylaid and seduced into answering a lot of personal questions by a voluble Bernie Sanders supporter stationed outside, but somehow I declined telling him my full name.

Then when I got inside, I found I wasn't on the comp list. This has happened before, but I've never had the staff be as uninterested in clearing this up as they were tonight. At the very last moment - like 5 minutes after the concert was scheduled to start, and the will-call line had finally diminished, and the last-minute goodies had been given out - when the man in charge told me there were no more tickets, I said, "OK, but when SF Classical Voice doesn't publish a review, it'll be your fault," and I turned to walk out - and then he somehow produced a ticket.

It was for one of the extra seats they'd put on the risers at the back of the stage. I made that unusual seating position the focus of my review.

But baah. The Stanford arts group's long-time communications director recently left. He knew me and would never have let a reviewer get dumped to the end of the waitlist like that. I hope this isn't how the new regime chooses regularly to handle problems.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

changing clocks

Last night I went around and changed all the clocks.

I'd heard somewhere that it's bad for the mechanisms of mechanical electric clocks to turn them backwards, so instead of turning the wall clocks one hour back, I turned them 11 hours forward.

My alarm clock has two buttons for time change, one for hours and one for minutes. Press the hour button once and it goes one forward; it doesn't go backwards. And since the clock is 24-hour, changing it in fall involves either holding the button down and hoping you lift your finger at the right moment, or just pressing the button 23 times. I did the latter.

In my new car, I have for the first time ever a clock whose time-change mechanism is sufficiently intuitive that I do not have to dig out the manual and figure it out from scratch every time DST goes on or off.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

ecce homines, pars XI

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1933-1961.

As the presidencies of 1861-1877 were those of the Civil War presidents, these were the presidencies of the World War II presidents. You had, first, the great leader who directed the war and died almost simultaneously with its conclusion; then the obscure border-state senator who succeeded him, about whom everybody wondered if he'd be up to the job; lastly came the war's victorious general, elected president more as a reward for his victory than out of confidence that he'd make a good president.

Roy Jenkins on Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the unique case in this series, so far, of a non-American author, and also the unique case of an author who died before finishing his book. He got as far as the middle of the 1944 presidential campaign, leaving the last 15 pages and 8 months of FDR's presidency and life to be finished off by his consultant, historian Richard E. Neustadt. Jenkins was a major British politician of his day who in retirement turned to penning massive biographies of Gladstone and Churchill. At one point he thought of taking on FDR in the same manner, but concluded that he didn't have enough original thoughts about him to make it worth the effort. But he did have enough to make a reasonable book in this briefer series. Interestingly, years earlier Jenkins had written a short book about Truman which would have made a perfect entry in this series: a brilliant character study bristling with fresh insights on him from a British perspective. By the time he got to his FDR book, though, Jenkins' knack had devolved into making every possible comparison with anything British he could think of, often ludicrously irrelevant. But, like his Truman book, it works as a chronological character study, devoting three chapters to FDR's earlier life and smoothly seguing into one chapter for each of his four terms as president. Jenkins' interest in FDR's relationships with others (sometimes abruptly terminated) leads him to a full account of Eleanor Roosevelt's earlier life, by far the most attention paid to a First Lady in this series. (And yes, the effect of FDR's affairs on his marriage is covered.) Jenkins has a solid grasp of his subject's often enigmatic thought processes, and is particularly brilliant on the president's diplomatic balancing act between a desperate UK and an isolationist Congress in the period before the US entered WW2. (He's properly dismissive of conspiracy theories regarding Pearl Harbor.)

Robert Dallek on Harry S. Truman introduces a new organizational pattern to this series, possibly because the post-war status of the US President as leader of the Free World requires this approach. (But Jenkins' Truman book was far more interested in exploring Truman's background.) After a chapter briskly summarizing the subject's earlier life, Dallek devotes one chapter to each year of Truman's presidency, throwing everything that happened in that period into a hopper and grinding it up. There's no narrative theme, just a lot of events, which is how life really is. Dallek is an academic historian who's written many general-audience books on other modern presidents; I haven't read any of the others, so I don't know if his tendency to evaluate the president's decisions by their effect on his political career is a regular tick of Dallek's; it fits oddly with his judgment that Truman's skill as president improved markedly once he stopped trying to please everybody and just did what he thought was right. Dallek virtuosically balances the rises and falls of Truman's popularity with the wise and foolish decisions of the presidency. Among the actions he defends is the dropping of the A-bomb, and I think he gets the arguments right on that point. Dallek acknowledges that Truman was a good president, who with experience rose to the challenges of his office, but he also claims that Truman was an unreliable narrator about his own actions (stating that his account of MacArthur's behavior at their Wake Island meeting was untrue, something I'd never previously read), and opines that Truman's ferocious temper, even though he kept it under wraps (it only erupted in public in his infamous pop-eyed letter to a music critic who'd given his daughter's concert a bad review), made him emotionally ill-suited to be president, even a potentially dangerous figure. This book was published over a decade ago, but we could use it now.

Tom Wicker on Dwight D. Eisenhower follows the same organizational pattern as Dallek on Truman: one chapter briskly summing up the man's earlier life and (approximately) one chapter each on each year of his presidency, with no division by theme or topic, with the organizing principle being the expression of the president's character. Wicker was a journalist who offers this series' first testimony to personal acquaintance with the subject. Wicker begins by admitting that he was a "devout" (his word) Stevenson man, but rather than disqualifying himself for writing about Ike, he skillfully leverages this into a severe critique of what he considers Ike's bad decisions, balanced with a sincere admiration of Ike's charm (which Wicker personally testifies to) and ability to maintain his popularity. Ike may not have covered himself with glory in dealing with Joe McCarthy, for instance, but getting out of that mudhole unstained was a sign of his political skill. And Wicker praises Ike for some wise initiatives, particularly in high diplomacy. However, it's the criticisms that stick in the mind from this book. Wicker credits, or rather blames, Ike for the creation of US covert warfare policy (engineering coups in Iran and Guatemala, though I'm not sure earlier presidents hadn't also done such things), the domino theory (which later led us into such trouble in Indochina), and the concept of executive privilege (a two-edged sword, that one). Wicker also concludes baldly that Ike's reluctance to intervene in post-Brown integration crises came simply from a preference for segregation, though his worst single mistake may have been sending that last U-2 flight, which torpedoed his nuclear disarmament initiative. Though there's much about Ike's character in this book, there's virtually nothing on his personal life; Kay Summersby goes completely unmentioned, even to deny that they had an affair.