Thursday, January 31, 2019

Pippin, 2002-2019

Our dear little Pippin passed away at the vet's office this morning at the age of nearly 17. He had suddenly become listless and ceased eating about four days ago; at first we hoped that some other food would tempt him, but he kept becoming rapidly more in distress. An exam revealed fast growing cancer, which hadn't been there on his checkup two months ago. So there wasn't much life left in him, and it was time to let him go.

Pippin originally came to fill our hearts in the place of the late great Severian. Seven had been born wild, but after initial suspicion had become a most loving cat. Pippin was a fostered cat who had also been born wild, but was put up for adoption instead of the initial plan of releasing him. We hoped he'd go through the same life cycle as Seven, but it didn't work out that way.

Pippin was never a very active cat; indeed, he often resembled a giant orange slug. He always remained shy and suspicious, especially of me, probably because I'd so often picked up and carried around the orange slug when it was a kitten. But he did crave love like other cats, just on his own terms. If B. would sit at the left end of the living room couch, and nowhere else, and reach out only with her left hand, he'd let her pet him, and to brush him with the wire brush, which he really loved (and desperately needed: we accumulated several all-fur cats' worth by brushing Pippin). Sometimes I could persuade him to play with the peacock feather by standing up on the staircase and leaning over the cat tree with the feather dangling down: I was far enough away from him that he thought it was safe.

But what Pippin really wanted, and never got, was for his companion female cat, first Pandora and then Maia, to groom him. He would lower his head towards them, but they never took the hint. Pandora, who was his senior, treated him with lofty disdain, but he worshiped her and was most distressed when she died. The junior Maia was at least friendlier; she and Pippin could often be seen sitting on the back of the couch together.

Because the original intention had been to release Pippin into the wild, his ear had been notched to show that he had been neutered. This had led the foster cat carer to name him Nacho. When she picked him up (sluggish even then) and crooned the song "Nacho Man" (after the Village People, of course) at him, I muttered to B., "We're changing his name." So we called him Pippin, after Tolkien's youngest and most impetuous hobbit.

May he be happy, and playful, and groomed wherever he has gone.

"Born feral, died loved" - B.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

ecce homines, pars IV

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 1841-1850.

These three presidents come from the heart of the period of obscure presidents. Their importance to US history therefore needs championing. They were also, all three of them, wealthy slave-holding plantation-owners. But unlike previous volumes about slave-holding presidents, whose authors noted the iniquities and hypocrisies arising thereby, these mostly take slavery for granted and pretty much ignore it, as traditional history did. Though the subjects' attitudes towards slavery were important to their politics, their actual practice of it seems separate from their political lives and is mostly omitted from these biographies except to note that running their plantations was an active concern of theirs. Curiously, all three of these men, at least at some point, "believed that [slavery] was inherently evil" (Tyler, p. 22), "branded the institution as 'evil'" (Polk, p. 77), "was personally opposed to the institution in principle" (Taylor, p. 99), but none of them were willing to give up their economic dependence on practicing it, and none made any political moves towards putting their abhorrence into policy.

Gary May on John Tyler is the exception that pays some attention to its subject's slave-holding. It's also the only one of the three by an academic historian, and is by far the best written. That Tyler financed his career not just by living off the backs of, but by buying and selling, slaves earns a bitter remark or two, and Tyler's life as a plantation owner is deemed worth a few scattered pages. Mostly, though - and rightly - the book is about Tyler's politics. May describes Tyler as an old-style Jeffersonian Republican who was ill-at-ease in both major-party options of his mature years, the populist Jacksonian Democrats and the nationalistic Whigs, which explains why he quit both parties in turn. Tyler's terrible reputation as president is due more to his not fitting in than to actual mistakes (though there were some of those, too; worst in May's opinion: appointing Calhoun as Secretary of State), and May concludes by noting Tyler's greatest accomplishments: establishing the principle that a succeeding VP is fully the president and not an acting placeholder, and annexing Texas. Assuming you consider these good ideas.

John Seigenthaler on James K. Polk apparently got the gig because, like his subject, he's from Tennessee, where he's a newspaper editor. But it's not one of the better books in the series: the writing is fuzzy and the chronology wafts around. As with some of the early volumes, this one focuses on its subject's personality. Seigenthaler describes Polk as a humorless workaholic, but he doesn't build the book around this as a thesis as the earlier volumes would. I've always been interested in Polk as a stunningly competent president. Whether or not you agree with his expansionist policies, Polk knew exactly what he wanted to do and accomplished it, and the same is true of his policies in other areas. Seigenthaler describes this, but his emphasis is more on Polk as a vehement Democratic partisan who hated Whigs. It's also livelier on Polk's earlier years as a loyal Jacksonian lieutenant than on his presidency. There's also a curious insert extolling Sarah Polk's talents as first lady (p. 116-18), which is interesting since Gary May says she was "a complete failure" because she was a puritan who forbade drinking and gambling in the White House (Tyler, p. 130). Disputes between these authors, mostly defending their own subjects, could be a theme of these reviews in itself.

John S.D. Eisenhower on Zachary Taylor gets a military historian to cover our first president who was a career military officer. (Previous military presidents had spent more time in civilian occupations.) As a result of what turns out to be this unfortunate combination of author and subject, this book is divided into two divergent parts. The first half dives into Taylor's entire army history with gusto, going into the Mexican War in such detail that there's a campaign map, not that it's of much help in following the text. Eisenhower says that Taylor's family life and maintaining his plantations were of equal importance to him, but the book says little about the former and almost nothing about the latter. Taylor's obsession with certain matters of military protocol is described with a portentousness suggesting they'll reappear in his presidency somehow, but they don't. After Taylor declares his presidential candidacy and retires from the army - in that order - the book switches gears and becomes all about politics. The problem is not only that nothing in the first half supports this topic (the claim that Taylor had earlier Whig sympathies is surprisingly weak), but that Taylor didn't do much in his 16 months as president. Most of that time was spent by the Senate debating what became the Compromise of 1850, which is discussed in detail, but there was nothing for the president to do until the bills reached his desk, which didn't happen until after Taylor died. Eisenhower thinks Taylor would have vetoed at least the Fugitive Slave Act (his opposition to the spread of slavery, remember?), which would certainly have changed subsequent history, but there's no evidence of this either. A quick generalization on the shared character of military presidents is interesting and lets Eisenhower name-check his famous father, but it clashes with what had been said about Taylor as a general. So this book is two puzzl(e/ing) pieces that don't fit together.

Monday, January 28, 2019

offending trash

My strongly negative comments about Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto on last week's San Francisco Symphony program were quoted by Lisa Irontongue in a post contrasting them with the favorable review in the Chronicle. (He's not a very good reviewer; most of us on my journal's staff roll their eyes when his name is mentioned.)

But the post, after one commenter who heard the ugly noise that I did, has attracted a slew of responses from Lutoslawski fans. Well, of course it did; those are the kind of people who read Lisa's posts. It's hardly a neutral polling result.

And, in fact, I'm such a person myself. I like a lot of difficult and tendentious modern music, which I think gives me the right to speak out firmly when, in my judgment, a work or a performance is trash. I'm not dumping on the genre wholesale, but using trained and experienced discrimination.

Which is not to say that others can't disagree; tastes do vary; but sometimes I wonder ...

Look, I've had problems with reactions to my own tastes. I'll never forget the time I remarked that the vast majority of jazz does nothing for me, and was accused of lying about my own musical tastes. Aesthetic disputes don't get weirder than that.

But that doesn't mean nobody ever puts on a show. If someone responds to a review that complains of "a soapy, unresonant, and frankly unpleasant tone" by writing, "it makes me really regret missing this piece," that's just playing a game of épater le bourgeois. It's not a serious contribution to discourse.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

concert review: Oakland Symphony

So I decided to attend that concert, the one where the Black conductor with Black soprano soloist would perform the music of five Black composers. I went because it promised an interesting program, but most especially because one of the composers was Florence Price, the mid-20C American woman whom I've been going around calling things like "criminally forgotten." But not by Oakland conductor Michael Morgan, who remembers a lot of unjustly neglected things.

Price's Symphony No. 3 is a charming and characteristic work in a generally Americana style often reminiscent of Henry Cowell's, but with hints, suggestions, and leanings of African American folk music all over it, in melodic shape, rhythms, and harmonies. It was brightly and firmly played here; the only flaw was that the amplified celesta was far too loud.

It was followed by Duke Ellington's Harlem, which is essentially "jazz for symphony orchestra." This kind of undercut Price, since Ellington is doing openly what Price prefers only to suggest, and didn't strike my own appreciation as much, though I enjoyed the cadenza for five percussionists.

Soprano Shawnette Sulker, whom I've heard before locally in Beethoven's Ninth, Mahler's Eighth, and Carmina Burana, performed in Songs of Separation, a song cycle by William Grant Still setting poems of lost love by Black poets. Still was the leading Black male composer of the same Americana generation as Price. Sulker sang well, but I didn't find the work as distinctive as his symphonies.

There were also works by two earlier, non-American composers who, though they were Black, wrote in typical styles of white composers of their time and place. One, the only composer on the program I had been unfamiliar with, was Antonio Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian who, despite his nationality, wrote Italian opera. Sulker sang a long aria from his opera Il Guarany, which at least has a Brazilian plot. It's fairly plain and songlike in its style; the light orchestration might have fit bel canto more than the Verdi it's contemporary with.

And a Symphony in G by the classic-era Frenchman, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. His mother was a slave from a West Indies French colony, but he inherited his white father's title and social position. He was an important musician in his time, for one thing being the guy who commissioned and performed Haydn's set known as the Paris Symphonies. His own symphony is more Mozartean than Haydnesque, but with an individual flavor that's not matched by all of the symphonists of that era who get played on the classical radio more often than he.

Was able to get to Oakland in time despite a delay in leaving home caused by wrestling on the phone to get our cable tv service fixed, with - for a wonder - a cooperative and helpful technician. Even got there (by BART) in time to have dinner at the Chinese restaurant a block away that has kung pao fish, a dish almost as rarely offered as music by Black composers.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I went to this concert, which was not on my subscription series, mostly to hear Christian Reif conduct Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Was that ever a good one. Reif and the orchestra summoned up amazing reserves of power for the coda of the first movement in particular. Yet the symphony didn't sound like a machine running of itself, as is often the case with fully energetic performances of this work. It lived, it breathed, it expressed emotions. A great performance of one of its century's great symphonies.

It was preceded by an account of Richard Strauss' Don Juan which had some of the same characteristics. In between, however, came something totally different.

Guest cellist Johannes Moser was originally scheduled to premiere a new concerto by Andrew Norman. That I'd have liked to hear, but it's been postponed to "a future season", it says here, for reasons unknown. It doesn't necessarily mean the composer missed the deadline, though that's the obvious explanation. Instead, we had the 1970 cello concerto by the Polish modernist Witold Lutoslawski.

This work is one of that peculiar subset of high modernist effluvia that seems to have been composed in dead serious earnestness but which comes across as goofy, even funny, because it's so pretentiously ridiculous. It begins with the cellist playing a D over again about twenty times, switching to some noodling, then going back to the D until interrupted by a loud blat from a trumpet. First laugh from the audience. More followed as the orchestra kept trying futilely to influence the soloist's behavior and they otherwise interacted like ships sailing past each other in the night. Mostly the orchestra played very loudly, while the cellist, interjecting between its outbursts, gave off a soapy, unresonant, and frankly unpleasant tone. For an encore, he played a Bach movement in the same grotty style, feh.

Insert here my unusual uncomprehending rant about why do they program such ugly, nasty stuff on the same program with such great music as the Prokofiev and Strauss. Surely it wasn't because they thought the Lutoslawski was funny.

I did have an unexpected treat this day. I have a few reliable restaurants I usually eat at before concerts in the City, but this time I tried something new. It's San Francisco Restaurant Week, which means a bunch of places are offering special multi-course menus for a fixed price. I decided to try a Catalan bistro in the Financial District (close to a Bart station, then a quick run on the Muni streetcar to Van Ness where the symphony hall is). There I had a smooth tomato soup with tender shrimp in it, paella with cuttlefish and sausage, served in the pan it was cooked in - paella for one person is a rare treat - and a custard that gets raves from me, who normally doesn't like fancy desserts. Restaurant week will still be going on next time I'm up, so I've picked another place to try.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

active weekend

It was. Not only on Friday did I attend a San Francisco Symphony concert on my own hook, but then on Saturday I went to review Symphony Silicon Valley, and then turned around and on Sunday went to review Jon Nakamatsu and the Escher Quartet (well, 3/4 of the Escher Quartet).

Oscar the grouch

I've seen four movies nominated for Oscars this year, and a bit of a fifth, which is about one more than my average at the time the nominations come out. Moderate pleasure at the ones I saw.

BlacKkKlansman. Curiosity as to the strange plot - African American cop investigates the local KKK chapter by impersonating a racist over the phone - led me to rent this, and I'm glad I did. It's got tension, righteousness v. evil, a good buddy relationship between the two cops, and a little humor, though not as much as the trailer would lead you to expect. I was slightly incredulous at the way the cops expected the Klan not to notice that the guy who showed up in person (because he had to be white) was different from the guy they talked to on the phone, even though that was the way the true story worked. At the very end, the cinematography suddenly turns into some kind of cheap-rent blaxploitation film. I suppose this was done for some reason that white people just don't get, because I certainly didn't.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Is it redundant to say "weird" if it's a Coen Brothers movie? What interested me about the sequence of Western tales that made this up is that, though they were all grim stories about death, the mode of storytelling varied greatly. Nos. 1-2 - despite their topic - were light and sort of goofy, a la Raising Arizona, and were the only part of the movie I wanted to see a second time. Nos. 3-4 are just grim. No. 5 is startlingly realistic in terms of its storytelling, startlingly because it's the only one of them like that. That also makes it the only real gut-puncher. No. 6 seems to be merely symbolic, a la Barton Fink, which is not a compliment.

The Incredibles 2. Though I'd rather enjoyed #1, I only saw this animated superhero film because B. rented it. I love the characters, but the plot was dreadful.

First Man. Perhaps it deserves all the technical awards it's nominated for, but it's not a good movie. The biography of Neil Armstrong it's based on went overboard on specifics - it even tells you how all the Apollo 11 astronauts took their coffee. But the movie is just murky and vague. Half the characters are never identified, so you don't know who they are; and evidently you're expected to read the contents of Armstrong's mind by just looking at the actor's face, because nothing else is provided.

Roma. Began to watch this on Netflix. Even the opening credits bored me to tears, and nothing that happened in the next five minutes changed my mind, so I turned it off.

Nominated movie I haven't seen but most want to is Can You Ever Forgive Me? which I missed on its brief run in the theater. Possibly considering First Reformed, though afraid it will be as crappy as There Will Be Blood. Reviews left me dubious about The Favourite and Vice, although their topics as historical films interested me, but they've both received so many nominations (6 major-category nods each, more than anything else this year) that maybe I'll give them a try. A Star Is Born? If someone puts it in front of me, I'll watch it; otherwise probably not.

Movies not nominated for anything, but that I most want to see, are also historicals of recent coverage: The Front Runner and On the Basis of Sex.

Monday, January 21, 2019

airline reservation

I'm taking a plane trip in a couple months, assuming there's still a TSA by then, and buying my ticket was the hairy activity of this morning. I used a recommended aggregator site called Momondo to find flights, and I have to say it worked well and gave me a clean and easy to use display.

The flights I chose were on different airlines going and returning, and one of them I was surprised to see, as I'd already checked its website which said it didn't have direct, let alone non-stop, flights between those two airports.

Well, when I clicked on my choice, it redirected me to Expedia to make the bookings there. I did that, and got an itinerary with Expedia's booking numbers, which have nothing to do with the airline. I was going to need the airline's numbers, because it also took me past the "choose seat" step, so I was going to have to do that at the airline's end.

One of the airlines immediately sent me an e-mail with their own confirmation code and a direct link to the seat selection page, so that's taken care of. The other ... didn't.

I have a mileage plan on that second airline, but that was of no help in pulling up my booking without the confirmation code. So I phoned them. The agent I reached on the first call couldn't hear my name no matter how many times I spelled it, something nobody else has trouble with. Then she accused me of mumbling. What I said next was anything but a mumble.

The agent I reached on the second call already knew my name. Why? Because this is the phone number listed on my mileage plan, and it came up automatically on her screen. So why didn't the first agent ...? Who knows; the second agent kept apologizing for what was not her fault, but showed no other interest in the issue. I'm glad I kept her on the line, though, because after I got the code number I found I couldn't add the flight to my mileage plan. Why? Because I'd booked with my full legal name, but my mileage account predates that rule so didn't have it, so the names didn't match, which produced an error, and users can't change the form of name on their mileage accounts. The agent fixed that, but my suggestion that there's a procedural glitch here that should be bucked to higher authority, along with the one about not sending confirmatory e-mails to Expedia customers, again produced only apologies for what was not her fault. I don't think they're going to fix this (actually it should have come up years ago), so next time ...

Sunday, January 20, 2019


After two years of marching, this year I was not at the local Women's March.

This had nothing to do with the charges of anti-Semitism against the national organization. I'm satisfied that the local group had nothing to do with that. And in any case somebody's vague association with Farrakhan bothers me less than having Trump as the formal head of the country. If Trump's only importance were somebody's vague association with him, I wouldn't worry about him either, and indeed for decades I never did.

No, this was a personal health issue. The occasional difficulties I have with my legs are at a maximum right now, and extensive walking aggravates this. I'm sure that it was my trip to UC Santa Cruz last week, which involved exhausting walking uphill in the rain, which set this off. How annoying.

Also, I was at work last evening, at a concert for review, and to stay alert it's wise not to have done too many exhausting things earlier in the day. Even as it was ...

Saturday, January 19, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Friday's concert was a big event in SFS history: the first conducting appearance of our new Music Director Designate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, since his appointment was announced six weeks ago. And this was literally the first, as this was the first concert of three performances of this program. It's obvious how much everyone is delighted to have him, considering the huge ovations that accompanied both his arrival on the podium and his final bow two hours later. He held his fist to his heart in response, and at the end blew a kiss.

It's sheer luck we got him on the podium for this week. He was not originally scheduled to conduct SFS this year. But a conducting cancellation occurred just before his appointment as Music Director Designate, and he was quickly slotted in.

EPS, as I suppose I should start calling him, has conducted SFS before, but I have no memory nor notation of ever having heard him here. The only time I'm sure I've heard his conducting live was in 2002 when I took a trip to LA to hear the Philharmonic, which he was MD of at the time. They were doing a Shostakovich symphony cycle, and I took advantage of the opportunity to hear the Second and Third, Shostakovich's most obscure symphonies, figuring I might never have another chance.

Friday's concert featured one new work, Metacosmos* by Icelandic composer (now resident in England, poor soul) Anna Thorvaldsdottir, 41. It was commissioned by the NY Phil and premiered by EPS there last spring. Though much briefer (about 14 minutes), it was interesting to hear in the context of the rest of the program, which consisted of two giant tone poems from 1896. Metacosmos, though using a different musical language, shares their sweeping atmospheric quality.

It begins, like Also sprach Zarathustra, with a low rumble (basses, contrabassoon, and padded felt on cymbals in this case). Gradually more layers pile on top, some subtly and some abruptly, and the climax comes when drum tattoos over a dissonant background are suddenly interrupted with a bang. The sound quickly resolves into a single consonant chord, and a long Sibelius-like melody, phrases coming from different string sections, is played over shimmering Sibelius-like strings, augmented by subdued pulsing sounds from the brass and added clicks from string players. Then a few strings rise quietly to their highest notes and the music disappears.

Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra was next. I liked EPS's handling of the introduction, the part heard in 2001. He had the same quick succession of the tutti chords that Karajan used in the version used in the film, instead of the pause for breath of most conductors (which is actually marked in the score, so don't blame them). On the other hand the rhythm of the trumpet calls was surprisingly flexed.

When the introduction ends after about 90 seconds with a giant tonic chord and a pause, it sounds like the piece ought to be over. In fact, when I found that alone on the movie soundtrack album way back then, I thought it was over. Nope, there's another 35 minutes of mush. After quite a while, the introduction reappears fortissimo, again ending with a big tonic chord and a pause, and you again think the work may be over, but you're wrong again; there's more.

EPS conducted all this with great attention towards shaping and clarifying the melodic phrases. It was outstanding work, probably better than the music deserved.

Last we had Four Legends from the Kalevala, an even larger slab of Sibelius. One of these four has independent fame, the almost glacially slow and quiet Swan of Tuonela. EPS conducted that one without a baton. The rest are livelier, with outbreaks of the chittering charm Sibelius is known for. Of course, this is early Sibelius, so occasionally he gets over-excited and produces these Wagnerian/Mahlerian passages that come out sounding indulgent when conducted with the intense dedication that EPS was showing here.

In these pieces, his emphasis was on expressing the drive, the flow, the pulse of the music. Watching him move precisely to a complicated rhythm, and even more hearing what it sounded like when he did, was worth all the trouble of being there. We have designated a winner as our next MD, judging from tonight's efforts, but I'm hardly surprised to say it.

*The program book prints the title in all-caps, but I consider that merely a typographical convention I'm not bound to follow.

Friday, January 18, 2019


I've never written of the strange and occasionally elaborate games my brothers and I shared in childhood, but somehow I was recently reminded that for a period we were obsessed with vampires. But our vampires probably had little in common with other people's vampires.

The vampires of our mythology had these characteristics: They were all named Count something, and they had stage-Hungarian accents in which they frequently said "Good evening," regardless of the time of day.

We were in our vampire period when a family vacation took us to Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. One of us (we switched roles frequently) was Count Dracula, while another of us was Count Coulee, who was showing his guest and fellow vampire around his magnificent home, which was played by the interior workings of the Grand Coulee Dam.

Vampires are where you find them.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Retro Hugos for 1943

This is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, as drawn by Mervyn Peake. Vivid, isn't it? Peake's illustrated edition of the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was published by Chatto and Windus in 1943, and is the first reason you should consider nominating Peake for Best Professional Artist of 1943,1 for the Retro-Hugos 1944 (works of 1943) are being presented by this year's World SF Convention in Dublin. (The book might also be eligible for the special category of Best Art Book, for while it's not completely a collection of visual art, the illustrations were the point of this new edition of the classic poem.)

Though remembered now mostly for his Gormenghast novels, Peake was primarily an artist. He had in fact 3 illustrated books published in 1943, and all three of them were arguably fantasy or sf.2

I'm here, as I was last year, to peruse the bibliographies of five of my favorite English fantasy authors who were active in the era covered by the Retros for eligible works. Peake illustrated those 3 books. J.R.R. Tolkien didn't publish anything in 1943. That leaves:

C.S. Lewis, who published 3 books in 1943, two of them popular theology/moralist treatises a little removed from Hugo interest, but the third is Perelandra (Bodley Head), and this is most emphatically a good candidate for nomination. This is the novel in which the hero, Ransom, is supernaturally transported to Venus to serve as a Heavenly kibitzer in what is essentially a re-run on a new planet of Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden. If Lewis's novels may be classed by which of his favorite authors most influenced them, this is his George MacDonald novel. I'm not that fond of MacDonald either, and I've always found Perelandra a bit airy and dull. When people question the authenticity of certain posthumously-published Lewis works on the grounds that they're not very well-written, my reply is to crack, "What about Perelandra, then?" A couple points in its favor, however. One is the character of the Unman - and I trust it's clear that he's not the same person as Weston whose body he occupies? The Unman is a horrifyingly vivid creation, emphasizing the sheer emptiness and nihilism of the mind of the devil. The other point is the famously fantastical Venus of the setting. It's completely scientifically implausible - we didn't know much about Venus in 1943, and Lewis knew even less - but the lush green floating islands are unsurpassed as a landscape of the imagination.

Charles Williams' principal work of 1943 was his treatise on The Figure of Beatrice (Faber & Faber). This study of Dante is commonly held to be Williams's greatest achievement in literary criticism. I'm afraid it's beyond my ability to judge or even much to understand, for Williams, who's not easy to grasp at the best of times, travels far beyond the Divine Comedy in Dante's output, devoting much attention to La Vita Nuova, Convivio, and De Monarchia, none of which I've read. The Comedy, at least, is fantasy by our retroactive standards, making The Figure of Beatrice a worthy candidate for Best Related Book.

Lord Dunsany. Of the 8 short stories - all of them quite short, though not quite as aphoristic as the 51 Tales - that he is recorded as publishing in 1943, 3 are fantasies. Two have been reprinted in a collection of his stories.

"The Widow Flynn's Apple Tree" (reprinted in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix3) is the longest of these, and one of the finest of Dunsany's later short stories. The bulk of it is a young man's account of how an Irish village sorceress turned him into a goose - no, not that kind of a goose, the kind that flies and honks - a shape he kept for subjectively many years. As with the man who was a dog in My Talks with Dean Spanley, Dunsany's evocation of the goose's perspective is lyric and memorable. The difference in the animalic psychology and the intensity of the sense perceptions merges with the flailing attempt of the narrator to find human language to describe these things that are beyond human ken. He's telling this story in court, having been found unconscious under the titular tree with a broken-off branch in his hand, and consequently charged with attempted burglary of the apples. He explains that the widow had kept her promise to return him to human form, but he was still flying at the time, so he grabbed at the tree to break his fall. This being Ireland, or more accurately Dunsany's Ireland, the judge listens patiently to the whole story and lets the defendant off.

"The Gratitude of the Devil" (also in The Man Who Ate the Phoenix4) includes two of Dunsany's pet peeves in one brief story. This is one of several stories in which he rails against processed foods, which he considered poison. A man who's invented a clever new processed breakfast food is visited by the devil, who's so pleased that he offers the man a boon. At this point the story switches gear as the man, taken by surprise, asks to be able to write the greatest poem in the world. The devil looks unhappy at that request, but the man soon finds himself automatically writing down a sonnet that's beyond his own ability to understand. The successive people he asks to evaluate it fail to give him a straight answer as they're overcome by varying emotions of grief, hostility, or rejection. (The text, or anything about it, is of course not given in the story.) Eventually, just to get rid of the thing, he submits it to a newspaper, and when they send it back with a "not suitable for our needs" slip, he destroys it. Unstated moral, and Dunsany's peeve: the public doesn't appreciate Art.

"A Bit of Bad Luck" (published in Punch, but not reprinted5) is an ironic squib in the form of a complaint by a man whose clever son has invented a matter-transmutation device and changed every bit of iron and steel in the house to gold. Does this please him? No! He doesn't want a golden bootscraper or golden fire tongs or a golden toilet tank chain.6 If he sells them, how will he explain them, what will it do to the price of gold, and above all what will it do to his tax rates? He won't be able to get enough money to buy replacements. What happens when burglars learn there's a houseful of gold in the neighborhood?

That's what I have to recommend for your consideration.

1. More illustrations from the book may be found here.

2. The other two were The Adventures of the Young Soldier in Search of the Better World by C.E.M. Joad (Faber & Faber), a Bunyanesque trek through a serious of tedious lectures on postwar planning, some of them delivered by fantastical creatures or a robot; and All This and Bevin Too by Quentin Crisp (Nicholson & Watson), a narrative poem in 48 verses of limerick, which depicts a sapient kangaroo who patriotically applies for a "kangaroos urgently needed" job at the zoo, only to be buffeted by an avalanche of bureaucracy and paperwork. Ernest Bevin, mentioned in the title but not the text, was the Minister of Labour in the wartime British government, so if it wasn't already obvious what Crisp is satirizing, it is now.

3. Originally published in The Listener, 17 June 1943, p. 724-26.

4. Originally published as "The Devil's Gratitude" in John O'London's Weekly, 10 Sept. 1943, p. 226.

5. 9 June 1943, p. 492-93. Not to be confused with "A Tale of Bad Luck" in the collection The Ghost in the Corner.

6. The story says they can't be changed back, but not why.


What a big rainstorm you have, Grandmother!
The better to grow tall weeds that will blow up in next summer's wildfires, my dear.
That was what I was thinking as I drove my slow way home last night from the staff meeting of my classical-music journalism outfit. The intense rain had driven off some of the intended attendees - one, I know, had to stay home to deal with a flood in his house - and, in the end, there were only six of us writers there to meet with the journal's three in-house staff members. There should have been twice as many.

There was definitely enough food for that many. Since we don't have a large enough office space for a meeting, we'd brought in deli food and hired a by-the-hour meeting room in an old but upgraded building in the middle of the City's Soulless Tech Company district. (Yes, that is a thing.)

As the copy editor poured me a glass of what must have been Cabernet, as he referred to it as "Cab" (which sounded like "Cav", leading me to expect that the other wine would be "Pag") and I settled in with a plate of blackberries and kiwi, the most appetizing foods on offer, our manager briefed us on funding and other big-picture structural issues that we writers can't see from way down here, and then we moved into an open discussion of how to make the website more attractive, easy to use, and popular.

This consisted largely of turning to the two writers in their 20s - the rest of us there were rather older than that - and asking them What Young People Want. That this irresistibly reminded me of the time that Roland Burton Hedley put the same question to Zonker Harris is probably merely a sign of how old and cynical I am.

Apparently one of the things that Young People Like are video clips that aren't embedded in the web page, but which float around the screen getting in the way of whatever it is you want to look at. What those make me want is to find the little red X button to click on and make them go away.

We also had a prelude discussion of opera, particularly the plots (which is a question of drama, not music), which moved me to say, "I have a button that reads 'Never Judge a Book By Its Movie.' Never judge a book by its opera, either."

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Steeleye update

When I heard the English electric folk band Steeleye Span, my long-time favorites in that biz, live in San Francisco in July 2015, I wrote of my particular pleasure at their rendition of "King Henry".

Well, now you can hear it, because a video of the song from eight days later on the same tour has come to my attention. That's guitarist Julian Littman singing lead, violinist Jessie May Smart, redoubtable vocalist Maddy Prior, drummer Liam Genockey in the back, and over on the side, substitute guest bassist Nils Peterson.

Well, there's more. All sorts of good videos are showing up online. (You might want to watch the volume, as the rest of these were recorded at a much higher level than the first one.) Here they are with a really outstanding version of "All Around My Hat" at the Cropredy Festival the next year, 2016. Here the bassist (falling off the right side of the picture again) is Rick Kemp, who'd come out of retirement, as he has several times before, to fill in between permanent bass players. Also, guitarist Andrew "Spud" Sinclair has joined the band; he's behind Jessie and Maddy.

And I couldn't resist this little bit also from Cropredy 2016: host band Fairport Convention, led by Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg, paying tribute to Steeleye with a spoof of one of their most famous songs.

And just in case you're not worn out, here's a full hour Steeleye concert from a folk festival just five months ago. The lineup has filled out and there's seven members now: new bassist Roger Carey behind Jessie, and multi-instrumentalist and singer Benji Kirkpatrick (son of one-time Steeleye accordionist John Kirkpatrick), playing banjo in the first song, standing between Maddy and Julian. It's a heavier rock sound, too much for my taste on the newer songs: however, the beefed up remakes of some of their gentler early numbers, a practice Steeleye has been undertaking for some years now, seem to me to be excellently judged. The quantity of front-line talent is now a match for any previous incarnation of the band. This is, all around, the best Steeleye lineup since the Silver Age of the 90s, and my guess on their prospects has gone well up.

I see I'm one album behind in my collection of their studio recordings, so I've ordered that.

Monday, January 14, 2019

not completely shut down

I ordered my replacement passport on December 12. The website said to expect a non-priority order to be fulfilled in 4-6 weeks.

The government shutdown began on December 22. It was only partial, but the State Department was one of the agencies specifically included. Uh-oh, I thought, what happens to my passport? Should I worry about it arriving in time for my trip in August?

Well, either the Passport Office was deemed essential, or else they're working there anyways, for my passport arrived today. 4 weeks, 5 days, with Christmas and New Year's included into the bargain.

Under whatever conditions they're working over there, I thank them.

Now, to see if the airports have recovered by the time I have to take my next flight, in March.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

ecce homines, pars III

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 1829-1841.

We've now passed the point where this series becomes what I remember the books I've previously read as, full biographies of the men without undue emphasis on their presidencies. What becomes interesting is how the authors - an academic historian, a presidential speechwriter (for Clinton), and a journalist, respectively - sell the evaluation of their subjects.

Sean Wilentz on Andrew Jackson has to cover the most controversial figure in the history of the presidency, and begins with a history of recent scholarly disputes over Jackson. But Wilentz says we can't fairly judge Jackson by today's standards; we have to use the standards of the time. That does leave him with plenty of room to criticize Jackson - who was hugely controversial in his own day too - either for failing to carry out his plans properly or for not properly considering their consequences. Still, there's a lot of apologia here. Jackson tended to consider his political enemies' declared moral principles to be window-dressing over personal motives, but when Jackson seems to be acting out of personal motives, Wilentz is there to assure us there were moral principles at stake. At one point, Wilentz lets the mask slip and accuses later-day Jackson critics of "the self-regarding sanctimony of posterity" (p. 121). Still, this is a readable and historically sound book. It's wholly critical of Jackson's Indian policy and largely so regarding slavery; but on economic policy (tariffs and the Bank), it's impressively lucid on the full panoply of rights, wrongs, and opposing principles at stake.

Ted Widmer on Martin Van Buren has the burden of the first obscure president in US history (kicking off a continuous run of eight before we reach Lincoln). Widmer is blatantly here to make a case, not for Van Buren's virtues which he admits are mixed, but for his importance in US history. Widmer sees Van Buren's significance as largely his having been our first real professional politician, builder of the Jacksonian Democratic party. Few documents or testimonies survive as to how Van Buren carried out this unprecedented plan, and Widmer frequently regrets their absence, but does a good job of telling the story anyway. By this viewpoint, Van Buren's unsuccessful presidency was an anti-climax, but Widmer keeps one's interest up here by describing how Van Buren's political wizardry was useless in a financial panic, and how his scheme to build a national party by eliding over differences regarding slavery ceased to work when the dispute broke into the open at the same time. Van Buren lived long, into the Civil War, having gone through a brief anti-slavery period Widmer sells for all it's worth. By the end, author has lifted subject into an apotheosis of that claimed historical importance.

Gail Collins on William Henry Harrison has the most difficult presidency to describe of the entire series: it lasted only one month, as this 68-year-old man died of the pneumonia he'd contracted by standing around coatless on a winter's day at his inauguration to prove how tough he was. So Collins just plugs through Harrison's life, fairly entertainingly. It's still a challenge, because Harrison was an underachiever. Youngest son of a wealthy planter, he went into the army for lack of anything else to do, but he was not a good general (his famous battle of Tippecanoe was actually a flub), his military career was over by his early 40s, and he spent much of his subsequent time sinking into unemployed poverty until the Whigs decided to run him for president. Accordingly, Collins concludes that the riotous campaign of 1840, not the presidency, was the highlight of Harrison's career, and focuses on that. We already got a full chapter on the campaign from Widmer on Van Buren, but you can read about it again. His presidency lasts less than five pages.

A president dead in office! This had never happened before. For what happened next, tune in to our next installment.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Oscar bait

Here's an article on why nobody wants to host the Oscars, or, rather, nobody that the producers would want. Basically it's because the show gets low ratings (I find that amusing, since it's the only tv special I regularly watch) and because the host usually gets such bad reviews. (Neil Patrick Harris got terrible reviews that I can't at all figure out how he deserved.)

So it looks like this year may be a ceremony without a general host. Frankly, they don't really need one; but the article goes on to recap the last time the Oscars went without one, in 1989, which it calls a legendary disaster of a show. With no host to have a reputation ruined, it ruined the producer's.

I don't remember this show - maybe I skipped it that year - but I watched parts of the embedded clips in the article. Actually I turned off the opening number (Disney's Snow White revisits Hollywood), which was as exquisitely terrible as they usually are, but I did watch the entirety of the number featuring 19 "stars of tomorrow", despite the fact that it was also exquisitely awful, consisting of a song by Marvin Hamlisch and Fred Ebb (perhaps Kander was wise to be unavilable) in which the young hopefuls sing about how they want Oscars and they want them now. To express such shortsighted sentiments (what you should want is not an Oscar, but to do good work that might get you an Oscar) and to address them to an audience full of older people many of whom actually have Oscars fits the definition of chutzpah.

What made it great to watch, though, was that I know the future. I can find out how these bright young things' careers went for the next thirty years.

Before I tell you how they did, let me note that most of them were 18-25 years old at the time. Many had been child performers, and a very large number are the children of stars. (Names like "Tyrone Power, Jr." give a clue.) No fewer than two are the daughters of Eddie Fisher; despite the fact that this makes them half-sisters to Carrie Fisher, I'd never heard of either of them.

I'd never heard of most of the others, either: despite the title, this is not a collection of the stars of tomorrow. However, they weren't complete failures: all but one of them have Wikipedia entries, so I was able to find out a bit.

Most of the ones with long-standing careers have been more successful in television than the movies. If I've counted up their future careers correctly, there are two Emmy winners, one Golden Globe winner (for tv work), and one Tony winner among them, but, unless I've missed something, not a single one has ever been nominated for an Oscar.

Of the 18, for one of them (Matt Lattanzi, one of the oldest at 30) his career was far more behind him than ahead. Others (Corey Feldman, Christian Slater) did OK in the movie biz for a while but then rather fell off the map (though Slater has moved into tv, and has a recent Golden Globe for his efforts). Only one of them (Carrie Hamilton, daughter of Carol Burnett) is dead.

From watching the show, I'd say that not all of them really deserved a place up there. I'll pass over the ones who can't sing but try anyway, and give highest honors to Patrick Dempsey (now best known from Grey's Anatomy, and winner of various less-famous awards) for lively and goofy acting, and to the youngest performer, 15-year old tap-dancer Savion Glover, who's apparently gone on to become a leading performer in that recondite field (he's the Tony winner in the bunch), with honorable mention to that brassy young woman, Ricki Lake, now a talk-show host so famous that even I've vaguely heard of her, a career move that's won her an Emmy. The other Emmy winner is Chad Lowe, who has the misfortune of being the brother of Rob Lowe, who featured in that infamous opening number.

Now I'm going to open the curtain and reveal the actors who were 18-25 years old in March 1989 who did go on to win Oscars up until now, and how well known they were back when they could have been on stage in this Oscar ceremony instead. Brace up, there's 25 of them:

*Nicolas Cage, 25, for ghu's sake had already been in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, and Moonstruck. There's no reason not to have heard of him.

*Helen Hunt, 25, had also been in Peggy Sue Got Married (as Peggy Sue's daughter), as well as some other movies I haven't seen.

*Juliette Binoche, 25, was a major French film actress, and had made a hit as the female lead in her one English-language movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

*Russell Crowe, 24, was a stage actor in Australia who'd never been in a movie.

*Sandra Bullock, 24, would soon open in an off-Broadway play for which she'd get the only semi-good notice in a slamming New York Times review.

*Marisa Tomei, 24, had already achieved tv note as Lisa Bonet's white roommate in the first season of A Different World. She'd done little in movies, but had won an award for her off-Broadway debut.

*Viola Davis, 23, had been a theater major in college and was either already or about to go on to study drama at Juilliard.

*Benicio del Toro, 22, an acting student who'd played a few thugs on tv and a circus dog-faced boy in Big Top Pee-wee. It's a wonder he kept on trying.

*Halle Berry, 22, had been a Miss USA runner-up who was pursuing a modeling career, and this year moved to New York to try acting instead, landing her first tv role (playing a model) this fall in a new series that was cancelled by the end of the year.

*Jamie Foxx, 21, made his debut as a stand-up comedian this very year.

*Philip Seymour Hoffman, 21, was a drama student at NYU.

*Cuba Gooding Jr., 21, an up-and-comer who'd appeared as a guest in several tv shows and a tiny part getting a haircut in one movie, Coming to America.

*Julia Roberts, 21, had been in a couple of movies including as one of the three leads in Mystic Pizza, and would this fall release Steel Magnolias, which would get her her first Oscar nomination.

*Nicole Kidman, 21, already a noted young film actress in Australia. Her latest release, Emerald City, would win her Best Supporting Actress from the Australian Film Institute. But international note was still a little ahead of her.

*Mira Sorvino, 21, a senior at Harvard majoring in East Asian Studies with honors, so take that, anyone inclined to dismiss her brains based on her Oscar-winning role.

*Mo'Nique, 21, like Jamie Foxx started her show-biz career doing stand-up comedy, but her Wikipedia article doesn't make clear when that was.

*Javier Bardem, 20, a struggling young actor in Spain still hoping he could be a painter instead.

*Sam Rockwell, 20, had filmed his first major role, in Clownhouse, which premiered at Sundance this year.

*Patricia Arquette, 20, had been in a couple of obscure movies, including Nightmare on Elm Street 3.

*Matthew McConaughey, 19, would this fall enter the University of Texas where he started out in show business doing tv commercials.

*Cate Blanchett, 19, had probably not yet dropped out of college in Australia to travel overseas, where she took her first film job as an extra in an Egyptian boxing movie.

*Catherine Zeta-Jones, 19, then playing the lead in a London West End production of 42nd Street, but hadn't yet made any movies.

*Renée Zellweger, 19, a sophomore at the University of Texas. While there she got her first bit-part movie role, which was cut.

*Rachel Weisz, 19, was taking part in student productions at the University of Cambridge.

*Jennifer Connelly, 18, had been a child actress who'd appeared in several movies, most prominently (but not to good reviews) as the lead in Jim Henson's Labyrinth. She was now back in school trying to get more acting training. It would work out.

There's your actual 1989 "stars of tomorrow." Many of them were still too obscure for anyone to peg as future Oscar laureates, but even at the time, it would have been reasonable for a perspicacious critic to have noticed Nicolas Cage, Helen Hunt, Juliette Binoche, Sam Rockwell, Julia Roberts, and maybe Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Connelly.

Friday, January 11, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The last time I heard Jaap van Zweden as guest conductor of SFS, he was visiting from Dallas. Now he's the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He's gone up in the world.

Last time, also, he was here to intensify the extremes of tempo and pacing of the works he was conducting. This time, he aimed at being smooth and pulling an even strain.

He picked interesting works to do this with: Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, which is a fairly short work for a very small orchestra, and Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, which is a very long work for a fairly large orchestra.

Soloist in the Mozart was SFS's own principal clarinet, Carey Bell. The smoothness and evenness were his. He was the opposite of the wildman I last heard play this piece. His tone was remarkably measured and placid; only some very low notes sounded rotund. And goodness knows, no squeaking at the high end. There was just enough graininess in the sound to make it interesting.

The Fifth is one of Bruckner's longest symphonies, and his most fragmented. Both the opening movement and finale begin with long series of disparate fragments that stubbornly refuse to cohere until at least halfway through. The eventual payoff, especially in the finale, is worth it if you're willing to sit through that much, but first you have to get there.

It takes a strong hand on the tiller to overcome this and make the Fifth into a solid, coherent entity, and it seems to me that van Zweden did this, at the cost perhaps of less emphasis on the more glorious passages than might have been heard in a less consistent performance. It also seems to me that, while the players gave the conductor what he wanted, they weren't always at the absolute top of their training in doing so.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

o to be a blogger

1. A few days ago my paper reprinted (the better part of) an excellent New York Times background article on Trump and the Wall. And what occurred to me, though the article doesn't mention it, is how similar the Wall problem is to the Brexit problem.

The problem is that the Brexiters campaigned on a glorious free-trade, regulation-free future, but it turns out that that option does not exist. Brexiters don't like May's deal because it's not what they voted for, and Remainers don't like it because it just makes things worse. And so they're stuck.

The Wall was sold as a solution to illegal immigration into the US. But the problem is that the Wall won't do that. Most unauthorized immigrants aren't scuttling through the desert, but coming through checkpoints, smuggled or often just overstaying visas. There's no equivalent of the May deal, but Trump wants his Wall because it'll make him feel good, and everyone else wants not to spend billions of dollars on a replica of the Iron Curtain just to make Trump feel good.

There's another resemblance: Brexit was based on a fundamental but questionable assumption that EU regulations were strangling the UK, and the Wall is based on an even more obviously questionable assumption that this immigration is harming the US. Immigration in general as actually good for us; illegal immigration is going down; and if we really wanted to stop it, we'd more vigorously apply existing systems that verify residency at the time of employment. But employers (mostly Republicans) don't want that, because they need the undocumented workers. They'd rather distract attention to the Wall instead.

2. Sophomoric article on commodified fantasy. "Sophomoric" means "half-wise, half-foolish." I'll just note that the foolish part includes the account of complaints against Jackson's LOTR films, which is a typical insulting parody of the actual complaints.

3. Humor column on being a lesbian who doesn't fit the DIY stereotype. A lot funnier than anything Ellen DeGeneres has done lately.

4. Interview with John Cleese. Cleese argues that ethnic jokes don't have to be insulting. Do you agree that his examples meet the mark?

5. Something musical for Monty Python fans: the specific full performance of Sousa's "Liberty Bell" which was used for the Flying Circus theme music. I've never heard another performance of "Liberty Bell" that sounds exactly like this, so I'm sure it's the right one. (And, extra added attraction, a convenient compilation of the opening credits from all four seasons, animation and music both.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

not writing

Although I see that I have gotten some posts made, I haven't been feeling very communicative lately. Just hermetic, holing up at home except when I have to go out for work.

That's not as often as for those with office jobs, since much of my work is at home, on the computer. What's been weighing over me is the need to evaluate a slew of Tolkien Studies submissions, especially the exceedingly detailed one by a speaker primarily of another language on an extremely recondite topic that I know I'm the only one of the editors who can tolerate as close an examination of as it needs. I spent about three weeks, off and on, going over it line by line, and then with a few new submissions coming in at the same time that turned out to be gloriously coherent and easy to read, I'm caught up.

And that's the least important part of my TS job. The rest of it I don't even want to think about at this point, although I have to.

In cataloging, the big upcoming job is on hold at the moment. That's setting up the LAN and creating a patron database, which will involve much discussion between me and my computer-tech colleague with the congregation staff and their tech guys. In the meantime we're dealing with smaller matters. Our ancient printer, the one we print spine and card labels to process the new books, broke while I was trying to print a large catch-up job to deal with a huge pile of accumulated acquisitions that had taken over the workroom.

Amazingly, we got the printer replaced in a jiffy. Having beaten off a suggestion that we get a big one with bells and whistles, I persuaded the person who ordered it to get an itty-bitty functional model, and amazingly this had arrived (after a stutter involving the New Year's holiday) and she got it installed before I arrived to use it. All I needed to do was designate it as the online printer for the cataloging program and we were off to the races. With others in the library at the same time we got the entire mammoth pile of accumulated books processed in one afternoon. That was a satisfying day.

I'm all caught up on concert reviewing, and I'm way behind on Mythcon, a job I felt was probably beyond me at this point even before I was talked into taking it. Let's put that aside also.

Also have undertaken some non-everyday errands at home, but leave that aside for now, until I get more of it done. Oh, one: having been fed, the cat now needs to be petted.

Monday, January 7, 2019

concert review: San Jose Chamber Orchestras

So what's my first concert of the calendar year? An editorial request to review an SJCO potpourri concerto concert. Did a little research in advance on the unfamiliar Mendelssohn piece, and found the arranger at intermission to ask him a couple questions about what he did. But I didn't have to ask anybody about the theme of the klezmeresque encore: I recognized that song from childhood right away.

Another review was actually written before the turn of the year, though not published until afterwards: for my sins I had to listen to SFS's recording of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, which I'd already sat through in concert. At least with the recording I could prop up the score in front of me and watch that go by, a process that almost inevitably leads me to greater appreciation of the music, so you get a more positive review.

Friday, January 4, 2019

happy day after Tolkien's birthday

In the new issue of New York Review of Science Fiction (#350, p. 1, 4-5), Michael Swanwick writes about R.A. Lafferty. He wants to argue that Lafferty "was not the solitary, literarily isolated genius, completely untouched by the work of others" that he's taken for.

He makes the point in detail by taking a Lafferty story, "Seven-Day Terror," describing it as an homage, a rewrite in an entirely different tone and style, of an obscure earlier story by Will F. Jenkins (better known in SF by his pen-name Murray Leinster, but this story, though fantasy, appeared in a non-genre magazine, in which venues Jenkins used his real name).

From my perspective of having read a dozen mutually-exclusive "discoveries" by wanna-be scholars of the one book that Tolkien must have used as the exact template for writing The Lord of the Rings, it seems to me that the shared idea in "Seven-Day Terror" - child discovers way to make objects actually disappear - is not one that a sufficiently imaginative author, which Lafferty certainly was, couldn't have come up with independently. The details of the two storylines, not to mention the tone and style, are too different to force on me the conclusion that it must be a deliberate homage. Though it might have been one.

The comparison to Tolkien comes in directly at the end of the article when Swanwick writes, "Asked for his influence on Tolkien, C.S. Lewis famously replied, 'You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.' This was mythmaking of the first water. But it was not true of Tolkien, nor was it of Lafferty."

Yes, it's mythmaking, but that's because, by invariably taking this phrase out of context, people universally read Lewis as saying something he did not mean to say. (In this it resembles the infamous Problem of Susan, where Lewis says straightforwardly what he means, but readers take it as code for something else.) In this context, it sounds as if Lewis is saying Tolkien, like the popular image of Lafferty, had no influences, no precursors, no models. And of course that's not true, but that's not what Lewis wrote. Here's the quote in context, from a letter of May 15, 1959, to Charles Moorman, a scholar who was seeking mutual influences among the Inklings, a group of friends including Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams who read their manuscripts aloud to each other:

"I don't think your project at all presumptuous, but I do think you may be chasing after a fox that isn't there. Charles Williams certainly influenced me, and I perhaps influenced him. But after that I think you would draw a blank. No one ever influenced Tolkien - you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all."

So Lewis is not talking about inspirations, the kind of influence that gets an author writing in the first place, the kind Swanwick says he's found for Lafferty. Lewis is talking about how Tolkien responds to criticism of what he's already written. Swanwick is correct that Tolkien was not entirely unresponsive to criticism - see his revision of lines in The Lay of Leithian after Lewis wrote a detailed critique, and there are other examples - but in general Tolkien did as Lewis says: he frequently redrafted (and he was a prolific redrafter) from scratch where other writers would edit what they'd already written, and when he did edit, it was more at his own initiative than from others' comments.

Where Lewis wrote in response to ideas and inspirations derived from his own reading, and this is easily traced in the finished products, Tolkien was a more hermetic creative artist whose inspirations were buried in what he called "the leaf-mold of the mind." Once he drew them out, he went his own way, and didn't treat readings at the Inklings as a writers' workshop session. (Though, of course, as Diana Glyer points out, in another sense of the word "influence," the simple encouragement that Lewis points to was enormously influential: without it, it's unlikely Tolkien would have completed either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at all, and then where would we be?)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

ecce homines, pars II

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 1809-1829.

Although these books were not published in the chronological order of their topics that I'm reading them in, they seem to be going through an evolution in format. The first three volumes discussed the presidencies in detail, with a light and partial overview of the rest of their subjects' lives to bring out a particular personality trait. These three give full biographies, rather than sketchy surveys, and while the first two, like the previous three, concentrate heavily on the presidency, the third spends less than half the book on it.

Garry Wills on James Madison was the first of this series I ever read, some years ago, and the excellence of its famously thoughtful author's work was what put the series on my mental map to continue with. Wills begins by stating explicitly the burning question about Madison: Why was this man, so brilliant as Father of the Constitution and first floor leader of the House of Representatives, such a lousy president? Wills says the usual answer, that Madison's talents were as a committee man and behind the scenes, not a public executive, only takes us so far. He wants to show us that Madison was the same man, with the same flaws and the same virtues, in all his roles. So we see, for instance, the lack of practicality in his theory-oriented mind tripping him up in his earlier triumphs, while his courage and steadfastness keep him going during the War of 1812. As the major event of his term, the war gets lots of attention, including military events not directly connected with the course of his presidency. Domestic matters are considered in a separate chapter. Wills concludes that Madison was great enough, having made a balanced case without special pleading.

Gary Hart on James Monroe is the series' first non-academic celebrity author. Yes, it's the former presidential candidate himself, the one being played by Hugh Jackman in a movie. Hart is a competent researcher and his thoughts on Monroe are clear, but he's not a good writer. He's very repetitious and the chronology is so tangled that sometimes it doesn't make sense. I found this book a slog to read. Rather than an explanation of its subject, it's nakedly a defense of a man whom Hart considers an under-rated president. Sure, Monroe didn't have the intellectual heft of his mentors Jefferson and Madison, but he had a practical touch they lacked. As a soldier where they were not - Hart goes into Monroe's Revolutionary War service (also mentioning that he appears in Leutze's famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware) - he was concerned with national security: building up the military, settling the country's vague borderlines, and above all the Monroe Doctrine, to which Hart devotes the bulk of three chapters, ignoring almost everything else in Monroe's presidency. Popular thought is that Secretary of State Adams was the author of the Doctrine, but Hart argues convincingly that it was a full collaboration between Adams and Monroe, arising from the president's concern to both support the new Latin American republics and keep the peace with Spain.

Robert V. Remini on John Quincy Adams is, as I mentioned, the first balanced cradle-to-grave biography in the series. Like the others, it devotes special attention to the presidency, but not inordinately so for a biography. As a scholar, Remini is a specialist in Andrew Jackson, Adams' bête noire, but he keeps the focus here firmly on Adams. He's also a witty writer, particularly when discussing Adams' approach to being president, which was loftily high-minded and completely ignored practical political concerns. Remini shows Adams' intellectual pride and anxiety to prove himself (the latter induced by his overbearing mother) at work also in his earlier diplomatic career, well-covered here, and his post-presidential blossoming as a courageous and independent congressman dubbed "Old Man Eloquent." Adams displayed in this last capacity a concern for slaves and natives he never had shown before. Remini doesn't castigate Adams for hypocrisy, but is not quite convincing analyzing Adams' crusade as a revenge on Jackson; nor am I satisfied with his brisk and dismissive claim for Adams' authorship of the Monroe Doctrine (see Hart, above). Despite that, though, this is a fine brief biography.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

sorting out for the new year

I run my e-mail mostly on Outlook as an off-line client, and every January 1 I clean out my miscellaneous in-box and sent items into a storage folder with the old year's name on it, so the front-line folders don't get too full.

This year, while the in box was empty, I did something else. Whenever I need to send an e-mail when I'm not at my home computer, I use the webmail interface, which (unless I ask to delete it) saves my sent e-mail in a folder. I had about five years of that, which together was using up about half of the measly 100MB storage space my vendor offers.

Time to download it all so that it could be stored for back-file purposes. I did that, and sorted it by recipient. That made it fairly easy to pick out the ones that belonged in special folders, e.g. I keep a separate folder for each submission for Tolkien Studies so that I can track what we did with it.

Then resorted the remainder by date so that they could go in the year files, and it's done. Frankly I could throw out most of this, but every once in a while ...