Sunday, December 31, 2023

the annual year-end post

2023 has been the biggest year ever for publication of my writing, for this is the year that my book, Gifted Amateurs and Other Essays: On Tolkien, the Inklings, and Fantasy Literature, came out. Most of it was written long ago, and the idea of somehow preserving my more scholastically-valuable writings in book form took shape when the Mythopoeic Society named me Scholar Guest of Honor for its conference that turned out to be held in 2022. A Scholar GoH should have a book, and the Society also publishes books, so I figured if they thought that highly of my work they might be willing to publish one.

They were, but the publication process is full of niggles and the book didn't come out until the following spring. It's received some gratifying reviews, focusing on readability, something I've always aimed for in my scholarly work, even at the cost of having academics look down their noses at it.

The odd thing is that, owing both to the advent of e-books and the absence of conventions (I haven't been to one since that Mythcon), I haven't yet seen a physical copy of the book other than my author's copies. It's not that I really look forward to autographing copies of it, it just feels odd that I haven't.

Besides that, I've had three hefty scholarly book reviews published in 2023, two in issues of Mythlore that have already come out, and one in Tolkien Studies in press, along with the other work I normally do for Tolkien Studies: the annual bibliography, contributions to "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies," and one heck of a lot of editing.

It's also been a big year for concert reviewing, and I've had 30 reviews published in my professional venues.

Again not a big year for traveling, though. One vacation, one theatrical expedition. Here's the places I've stayed in away from home in the year:

Seattle WA
Sequim WA
Amanda Park WA
Tukwila WA
Ashland OR

Saturday, December 30, 2023


Sartorias writes about routines, and the freedom to establish them for yourself once you're retired and don't have to build them around work requirements.

I find in a sense I still do. I build my day, not around self-selected enjoyable activities, but around necessary errands and tasks, for the simple reason that, if I don't, I'll forget to do them. Sometimes I forget some of them anyway, especially if my day is interrupted by other tasks. It goes something like this:

  • Morning ablutions (a complex set of tasks already, but anything more would be TMI)
  • Morning computer routine. This one is voluntary: I check my e-mail, read some blogs (mostly ones which have regular new posts), and read the local newspaper online, in particular the weather, copying the forecasts into a spreadsheet so I can keep up to date on what's due.
  • Morning pills: divided into four parts (because only some of the medicines belong in the daily pillbox), which I have to keep memorized or I'll forget to take one or more.
  • Afternoon tasks: clean the catboxes, put a pitcher of water in the fridge for dinner. (If I do that earlier, it'll get in the way of B's lunch stuff.)
  • Making dinner. (I cook, B does the dishes.) It helps if I remember to decide on the menu earlier in the day, so I can go out and do any necessary shopping. But that remembering is an aspiration not always achieved.
  • Dinnertime pills: divided into two parts.
  • Evening ablutions.
  • Bedtime pills: divided into two parts.

There are also weekly tasks: setting up my 7-day pillboxes, ordering and picking up the weekly grocery order, taking the trash and recycling out to the bins and putting them out by the curb, etc. Other tasks of about that frequency, like laundry and fueling the car, I do as needed and not on a regular schedule.

And monthly tasks, notably paying bills (which come in multiple parts, as while most of our bills arrive at the same time, some arrive at different times and can't wait for the monthly rush to pay).

And even annual tasks, notably taxes; and also the purely voluntary one I'll be doing tomorrow.

Friday, December 29, 2023

concert review: Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng was the only non-classical performer at the memorial event for Geoff Nuttall. I was not previously aware of her work. She's a singer-songwriter who performed a song of her own composition at the piano. I liked it, so when I learned she'd be playing at the Freight, I decided to go.

It was an hour and a half of requests, taken by having been written on paper slips and deposited in a bucket before the concert. They did not include the song I'd heard before. Most played at the piano, a few involving turning to various electronic gadgets. The only song I was familiar with was the one cover version, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and the general mien of that song - serious, hopeful, attractive to listen to - gives an idea of what the rest was like. It was very good, I enjoyed it, and it could have gone on longer without my getting itchy.

Preceded by an opening act of a duo who collectively call themselves The Singer and the Songwriter (Rachel Garcia, singer; Thu Tran, guitarist; they're actually both the songwriters). Same sort of thing, only not as incisive, but also occasionally funny, as in a song titled "How to Write a Song."

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

movie colonization, again

John Scalzi is occupying December by writing daily essays on his comfort-watch movies. I'll have more to say on his choices after the month ends, but here I want to note that his choice for the 25th was The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies.

In it, he makes some sensible remarks about the movies as movies (including sharing the opinion that the theatrical versions are better than the extended editions, with which I think I agree), but he also defends the movies as adaptations of the book on the assumption that what people who dislike the adaptation dislike about it is that some material was cut, in particular Bombadil.

Apparently everybody who loves the movies thinks that's the objection of those who dislike the movies, but it's not mine and not that of anybody else I know among movie-detractors. Condensation as such is necessary, we know that, though some choices in the process of condensation may be unwise. And Bombadil has been left out of many adaptations before. He's essential to Tolkien's conception of Middle-earth, but he's not vital to the raw storyline from a practical functional perspective. He's a relic from when LR began as a sequel to The Hobbit and would have replicated The Hobbit's episodic first half. But then Strider entered and the story took a different path.

I'm just as happy, from the perspective of somebody feeling obligated to sit there and watch the movies (if I hadn't, how could I critique them?) that Bombadil was omitted, because considering the ineptness of Jackson's Lórien or indeed just about anything else that wasn't about danger or monsters, his Bombadil would probably have been truly dreadful.

Instead, as I've explained whenever this comes up, what's painful about the adaptations is not what they left out, but all the nonsense and garbage they added instead, none of which is necessary for the adaptation and much of which flaws the movies even purely as movies, disregarding the adaptations. I won't go into much of that here, but I will note the last point in regard to an older essay Scalzi links to, which he describes as arguing "that the film trilogy was better than the book trilogy, in terms of storytelling."

Actually, the article makes no argument as to why these particular movies are better. It's a theoretical argument as to how it's possible for a movie adaptation to improve on a good book. That's possible, Scalzi says, when the book, although good, is not "great literature," which he defines as books whose literary style, whose sheer prose, is so fine that no other version could improve on it.

Claiming that Tolkien, although a good writer with a fine story and a brilliant world-creation, is not a great stylist requires a lot of gratuitous and unfair slams at Tolkien, and ultimately rests on Scalzi personally finding reading the book to be "a slog." True, he's not the only one, but many of us find the book captivating from end to end, even the poetry which, no, isn't "great poetry" but is a great reading experience. And I defy you to find any work of "great literature" which hasn't been a slog to numerous readers. Scalzi's prime example of great literature is Nabokov, whom I haven't read, but would he so classify Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost, two acclaimed masterworks I was entirely unable to finish?

Lastly, what kind of standard of literary judgment says that, as prose, The Lord of the Rings isn't great writing but that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is? A wrenching, memorable story, yes, but acres of dull and flat prose - deliberately so, I'd have thought, to convey the nature of the setting.

But when a good but not-great book is made into a movie, Scalzi says, a great movie can result because it's a better telling of the story. He gives examples, including Gone with the Wind, of which all I can say is that if that overlong and tedious movie is better than the book, the book must be really deadly. He also names The Wizard of Oz.

And then he says that, in all of these, "the film version of the story is the definitive version - the original text is, at best, complementary to the film. This is because the film is the better telling of the story."

Thank you; you've made my argument for me. Whenever anyone objects to a movie adaptation of a book, there's always some fool around to say smugly, "The book is still on the shelf." But it doesn't matter if the book is still on the shelf if nobody takes it down and reads it because they've listened to some other fool who thinks that the movie is better. Even if - especially if - they're right. (How about Bambi?)

The Wizard of Oz - and Frankenstein, which Scalzi doesn't mention - are my prime examples of movies that have completely drowned out the books they're based on, even though the book is still there. People think they know the book because they've seen the movie, but they're mistaken. The necessity to explain, for instance, that Baum's Oz is not a dream, and Shelley's creature is not a mute dumb monster, is endless. Although Scalzi says there's no danger of the Lord of the Rings movies supplanting (his word) the book "because the books have had an unusual 50-year head start," that head start gets less overwhelming as time goes on, and the movies are already supplanting the book. Look at this guy, a serious scholar, who nevertheless says that "We cannot return to a purely literary Middle-Earth independent of, primarily, Sir Peter Jackson's extraordinary films." In other words, he's saying that we can't take the book down from the shelf as if there were no movie, we can only read it in the context of the movie.

The prime specific example of this supplanting is turning out to be Jackson's decision to depict Sauron as a giant eyeball on top of Barad-dûr. Leave aside that Tolkien's Sauron had a physical body; that's not important to my point. What's important is that viewers get this giant eyeball which can do nothing but see and make absurd double-take reactions to what it sees, and they think of Sauron as impotent, helpless, even powerless. I don't think that's the reaction Jackson intended. But worse, commentators have begun thinking that even of Tolkien's Sauron, who is extremely powerful and is the effective master of many tools and is altogether terrifying.

Here we see the movie actually ruining people's reaction to the book, and it doesn't matter if the book is on the shelf, the book that exists in the world is the one in people's heads.

But that's just a mistake, an unintentional misreading of the movie by viewers. It's worse when the movie intends it. Scalzi concludes, "Jackson is the better teller of this particular tale." That is complete nonsense. The movie flails around trying to tell the tale, especially when Jackson is torn between telling Tolkien's tale and telling his own. It's one thing to change the source material to fit the film medium: for instance, folding the briefly-appearing Glorfindel into some other character (Bakshi did this too; he used Legolas). It's another to change the story because you don't understand why the author wrote it that way.

And this is most clearly shown with Faramir. Jackson says in the commentary that if the Ring is so powerful and tempting, that it makes no sense for Faramir to be immune to the temptation. He has failed to read the book very carefully. Faramir says, "I am wise enough to know that there are some perils from which a man must flee." As I've written before, his reaction doesn't diminish the Ring's power, it underlines it. Look, here's a weapon that could by itself win the war, a war which at this point the good guys are losing badly. And yet any good characters who have the power to wield the Ring adequately won't touch the thing. I think that avoidance conveys the danger of the Ring a lot more vividly than an endless series of Boromirs and Gollums falling victim to its lure would.

But look at what the movie does. Jackon is telling his story: Faramir is lured by the Ring. But if Faramir seizes it and takes it back to Minas Tirith, it would change the story utterly. (And not in the way Jackson probably expects. As Gandalf tells Denethor about Boromir, had he seized the Ring "when he returned you would not have known your son.") But Jackson doesn't want to change the story utterly: he still has some affection for Tolkien's. So he has to return the story to its basis by having Faramir give up the idea of taking the Ring. But that's purely for plot reasons, not for Jackson's internal idea of Faramir. He can't think of any reason for Faramir to do this, so it happens inexplicably.

The whole movies are full of scenes like that, where the plot falls off the rails because Jackson doesn't understand the story he's trying to tell, but then he has to drag it back on the rails again by main force. It's inept. It's a poor telling of the story.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Christmas hangover

Not literally - I didn't have anything to drink, and wasn't too tired to drive home. B. had some eggnog which I believe was spiked, but that's OK as she wasn't driving.

We were at the coastside home of our nephew and niece who moved out here a couple years ago, where we'd been just once before for a housewarming. But they wanted to host Christmas this year in place of our usual venue, his sister's house, so they did it. It's a bit of a drive, and it's located alarmingly on a steep hillside, but it's a large enough comfy house, so we managed it.

We were the only guests of the older generation, as B's sister and her husband, parents of the above-mentioned siblings, were out with RSV, though they did Zoom in. Also present were sister and family (including the only representatives of the next generation, sons aged about 20), third of fourth sibling + spouse, the household cats (an essential feature), and the hostess's two brothers, both of whom I'd met before but not at once, at least not since the wedding quite a while back. They look very much alike despite entirely different hairstyles but do not look so much like her.

I mention all this personnel mostly to underline that this is one of the few large-scale social events we've been to this year. Thanksgiving with an overlapping cast and a few book-discussion club meetings, that's about it. I don't expect much more next year except Mythcon.

Anyway: good time, good meal. White Elephant gift exchange, involving explaining to out-of-town brother the differing social expectations attached to local chocolatiers Ghirardelli and See's. Fourth sibling on Zoom and watching his kids open Christmas presents. Football game on large-screen tv (the players have to work on Christmas? Ugh!), which I watched long enough to observe a drive down the field fueled far more by penalties against the defense than by the offense's own paltry efforts. I don't watch such events except opportunistically at others' houses, and a good thing too: more like that would have made me feel ill.

Home rather late. Our cats wanted food! and attention.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Mary Christmas

I find it hard to associate Christmas with Monday. It doesn't seem to fit.

Nevertheless, have a good one.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

more new movies seen

Nyad. Unlike with Leonard Bernstein, I have not the slightest interest in Diana Nyad's arena of achievement, marathon swimming, but this movie does a good job of conveying it. It chronicles her several attempts at age 60 of trawling 100 miles across the Gulf Stream between Havana and Key West. What I hadn't realized is that swimmers attempting such feats are accompanied by several boats full of support personnel. Why go to all that effort swimming when there's a nice comfy boat right next to you? It seems grotesque. Just get in the boat and relax.
But though there's a lot of swimming in it, this movie isn't really about swimming. It's about the friendship and mutual support of two 60-year-old women, Nyad and her friend/coach, and how often do you get to see a major movie about two self-defined old crones? And they're played by Annette Benning and Jodie Foster, so the quality of work is very high.

Saltburn. The psychological thriller of the season. The reason "The butler did it" is such a cliche in English "cozy" murder mysteries is that in real life, this master of loyalty and discretion is the last person who would. The sheer improbability of it is the point. Anyway, Saltburn is that kind of a story, so prepare yourself.
Most of it takes place at an expansive country mansion (filmed at Drayton House, Northamptonshire) but the opening scenes are at Oxford and very specifically shot. The college the characters attend is never named, but it's clear as crystal from the opening that it's Brasenose. And the last scene at Oxford is at Magdalen, with Addison's Walk on one side and the New Buildings, where the Inklings met in Lewis's rooms, on the other.

or partially seen ...

You Hurt My Feelings. It's supposed to be a comedy, but the principal characters of this one (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies) are so painfully unfunny that I only lasted about 15 minutes. They're a late middle aged married couple whose main interest in life seems to be embarrassing their 23-year-old son (scene: Mom walks into son's workplace, tells him he should get a better job), and who are shown extensively at their own jobs (writing teacher and therapist), at which they are both so hamhanded and flatfooted that the prospect of a whole movie of this level of humor began to seem unbearable.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

tree's a crowd

Last night we thought we'd go out and look at some Christmas lights. The paper had said that the best displays locally were in a neighborhood of Willow Glen, so thither we drove, dodging the drivers on the freeway who frantically jump out of the exit-only lane into your lane right in front of you and then take the exit option anyway.

What we forgot is that everyone else reads the paper too and the neighborhood was jammed. The residential streets are narrow, there are cars parked end to end on both sides, and the traffic going both ways inches along slowly. Admittedly there's time to study the lights, but this is no way to enjoy them.

On top of which, I didn't find the displays there that fun. The main feature was lighted hoops or giant candy canes - depending on which street you were on - in front of each house, and any individual decorations tended to seem subsidiary. I like a street full of more chaotic, individualized decorations.

Note for next year: avoid the freeways and the crowds and just go to the likely neighborhoods in our own immediate area, where we've had success in the past.

Friday, December 22, 2023

movie review: Maestro

This is it: Bradley Cooper's touted bio-pic of Leonard Bernstein has made it to streaming Netflix, and I've seen it. As an old LB fan - I grew up on his Young People's Concerts, learned the standard repertoire from his numerous recordings, and cherish some of his music, especially Candide and Mass - I was primed for this, and it met my expectations.

It was well-made as a film. Some of the segue transitions between scenes were startlingly imaginative, the best I've seen since Lone Star.

I like that it skirted the "tour of famous events" style of most bio-pics, and that it entirely avoided the cringeable technique of having characters identify each other to other people who already know who they are for the sole purpose of catching the audience up. Passing appearances by the likes of Jerome Robbins, Comden and Green, Aaron Copland, and Serge Koussevitsky are sufficiently clear in context for anybody who already knows who they are, and it won't matter if you don't. Some hefty expository lumps are limited to background info and are well-justified, like an actual recording of Edward R. Murrow introducing a tv interview with Lenny and Felicia.

In makeup and prosthetics, Cooper looks enough, sounds enough, and acts enough like the public appearances of Bernstein that, despite some disconcerting moments when he neither looks nor sounds like him, it's believable that this could have been what the private Bernstein was like.

The trailers made some of the scenes with Felicia look pointless, but they work better in context. I didn't always quite get her, though. It's after hearing Mass that she turns on Lenny and tells him his heart is filled with hate, which doesn't sound like him at all. And then after hearing him conduct Mahler's Second, she changes her mind? What? There's an agonizing extended sequence of Felicia dying of cancer, which is evidently there to show that Lenny really does love her. Supposedly she's the central character of this story, but it really doesn't feel that way, even though all that follows her death is a quick overview of his continuing life.

The big Mahler Second scene - in which Cooper actually conducts the way a real conductor would, which impressed me greatly: most actors can't do that, even Dudley Moore, who was a trained musician and ought to have known better - and a scene in which Lenny instructs a young conducting student in handling a fermata in Beethoven's Eighth (and later seduces him) are the only extended scenes of Bernstein the musician, and they're tucked up near the end. I would have liked smaller instances of this scattered about the film than we had.

Oh, there is one scene of him writing a few notes at the piano and then coming out and announcing to the family that he's just finished composing Mass. Actually, it was a much more hair-raising and last-minute process than that.

One particularly interesting scene was when, prompted by Felicia, he lies to their daughter denying the rumors about his sex life. He attributes the rumors to jealousy of his talents. I thought that interesting, since the one time James Levine was forced to address the then-smoldering rumors about his sex life, he also attributed it to jealousy of his talents.

I would only recommend this movie if you're interested in Leonard Bernstein. But if you are, it's not to be missed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Mr. Roadshow

There's one feature in the San Jose Mercury News I read unfailingly, and that's the local transport Q&A column, written by reporter Gary Richards, who gave the column, and himself, the moniker Mr. Roadshow. It's been very useful for anyone who needs to get around the local area, covering construction closures, fields of potholes needing repair, traffic-calming measures, dangerous intersections, commute patterns, and mass transit also: schedule changes, planned improvements, etc. Also ancillary matters for drivers like tips on how to get a smog check or get an appointment to renew your license.

There were times I wanted to write in myself about something or other, but I never did, for fear he would associate my name with that of my brother, who used to write him regularly offering specious proofs that carpool lanes were illogical.

In recent years Mr. Roadshow had become chronically ill and had to cut back his column to a couple of days a week. He could no longer drive, and his trips to check matters out in the field had to be chauffeured by his wife, Jan, whom he dubbed Mrs. Roadshow. She made her own occasional contributions to the discourse.

Today we learned that Gary Richards died on Sunday, the day his last column appeared. We salute his memory, and hope that his work will be carried on somehow.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

via the phone

Well, that was the most unusual recorded phone message I've gotten in quite a while, not that I get many of them these days.

To take it from the beginning, this woman had been browsing EBay and found an auction for an old pocket watch inscribed "R.W. Reynolds." Curious as to whether that might be anyone important, she did a web search and found my blog post for the Tolkien Society about Tolkien's schoolmaster of that name.

So she thought somebody who was that interested in Reynolds might want his relics, so she searched for a way to contact me and let me know about the auction. Apparently my phone number was easier to find than my e-mail, which is mighty peculiar, but at the moment she phoned, both B. and I had our headphones on and didn't hear the ring. So she left a message.

In her assumptions she's mistaken. I'm not that interested in Reynolds, only insofar as his significance re Tolkien, and I wrote about his personal history only because it made an interesting story. I don't collect relics, and we don't even know for sure if it's the same guy.

So I won't be phoning back - there'd be nothing to say except "yes, you did find the author of that piece" - but what another weird story.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Bob Johnson

Word has it that Bob Johnson has died, aged 79. He was for many years the lead guitarist and frequent vocalist for Steeleye Span, and was the monger who provided the band with Long Lankin, King Henry, Alison Gross (all of these are rare videos of live performances with Bob in them, with him giving lead vocals in the latter two), and many others.

All those silly songs about fairies and elves - I've given them up. I've had enough.
Because I've grown up now, I'm much bigger, I've moved on to bigger things.
Giants. I'm going to sing about giants instead.
One day they're going to carry me away, you know; they're going to take me off the stage with a walking stick.
Anyway, until they do, I'm going to sing about giants.

- Bob Johnson, introduction to Longbone

Wednesday, December 13, 2023


This one B. led and I just followed her example, and it worked out fine.

In addition to the new covid vaccine and the flu vaccine, we wanted the RSV vaccine (an initialism that keeps being overwritten in my mind by HSV and HPV). Kaiser, our medical provider, offered the former two, and we got them there, and they said they would offer RSV eventually as well. But they kept not getting around to it, and time was wasting. We wanted the vaccination in effect before the big family Christmas gathering.

So we got it from the pharmacy at CVS (another initialism! but this one I can remember because it sounds like CBS). B. got hers successfully, so I logged on and made myself an appointment for the next day, which meant I had to go to the outlet in Willow Glen, but that was no trouble. I had to provide the number from my Medicare card on the sign-up, but nobody asked to see the card when I actually went.

On the day, it went efficiently, though they did act as if they expected me to cancel and withdraw when they told me the price, which was high but which also was what B. had paid, so I wasn't surprised by it.

And then my upper arm was sore for the next day, and CVS sent me an e-mail to download a vaccination certificate, which I then forwarded to my doctor to have it added to my records; and I also submitted both it and a scan of my payment receipt to Kaiser with their online reimbursement claim form.

Success! For this morning, just 3 or 4 days later, I get an e-mail asking for my bank account details so that they can repay me. (An obviously authentic e-mail, I should add, though what was obvious about it I won't say, lest it encourage scammers.) It's always gratifying when a complex operation goes smoothly.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

"Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas"

I've been to Rob Kapilow's music appreciation programs before. He's the best speaker on that topic I know of, avoiding both the Scylla of reducing the subtleties of musical form into inane simplicities and the Charybdis of drowning the reader in arcane technical specificities. Besides classical pieces, he's covered musical theater and jazz, and this one went off in a similar direction: Christmas songs by Jews, of which there are a lot. I was too curious not to go.

Kapilow put this in context by explaining that the children of the Jewish immigrant generations in the 1880s-1920s were anxious to escape the crowded ghetto and tried to assimilate into American society. And so those who turned to music (which didn't have the ethnic quotas of higher-status professions) wrote Christmas carols, which became, Kapilow said, the songbook of the American dream - written by immigrants and the children of immigrants, a lesson worth remembering.

The foundation stone of this collection was, of course, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1941), whose Bing Crosby recording became about the most popular song ever. It was followed by so many others that, within a few years, songwriters were wracking their brains to come up with a new angle when asked to write a Christmas song. For a cynical Bob Hope movie about an urban grifter? The first urban Christmas carol, "Silver Bells."1 For Eartha Kitt, at the time "the sexiest woman alive" (according to the songwriter)? The first sexy Christmas carol, "Santa Baby."2 (This, Kapilow said, faded into obscurity until resurrected by Madonna, who'd be just the person to do it.)

All these songs were resolutely secular, part of a movement - sponsored by the government, which wanted to culturally unify the troops during WW2 - to secularize Christmas and make it the leading national holiday. (It didn't work on me: as a child I resented the invasion of Christmas into my Jewish existence. I got over it when I married a Christian woman. I help her celebrate her holidays and she helps me celebrate mine. It's a deal.)

But there were a couple of exceptions to the rule that Christmas carols by Jews were secular. There's "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,"3 which is a parable of anti-Semitism. Oh yes it is. And there's "Do You Hear What I Hear?"4 which turns to the nativity story as a plea for peace during the Cuban missile crisis when it was written.

All of these songs were sung on stage during the evening's program, by a couple of soloists and/or a small choir, with piano accompaniment. Kapilow either played the piano or conducted, with other people to do those jobs when he was doing the other one. (Credits)

But the real meat of the program was the musical analysis of what makes these songs great. "White Christmas," Kapilow said, owes its seductive charm to a touch of melancholy, reinforced by minor and dissonant chords in the accompaniment. (Yeah, but I've heard arrangements which ignore all that.) And the warmth that comes at the very end ("And may all your Christmases be white") is due to the last note being the first time in the song that the melodic line is on the root note of the home chord. Something technical also explains the toasty feeling of the end of "The Christmas Song"5 ("Although it's been said many times, many ways / Merry Christmas to you"). After a song's worth of melody in a jazz style, changing key almost every bar, for the conclusion the melody returns to the home key and stays there.

Kapilow also noted the similarity of the openings of "The Christmas Song" and "Let It Snow."6 Both begin with an upward leap (cf also "Somewhere over the rainbow") followed by a sequence of descending notes. Interestingly, both songs were written - though by different people - on the same occasion for the same reason: to think of something cold as relief from the brutally hot LA summer of 1945.

1. Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, 1950.
2. Joan Javits and Philip Springer, 1953.
3. Robert May (lyrics, 1939) and Johnny Marks (music, 1949).
4. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne, 1962.
5. Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, 1945.
6. Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, 1945.

Friday, December 8, 2023

so, what I did on Tuesday

Several years ago, I came across a library copy of a book on industrial musicals, a genre previously unknown to me, and I read it with full curiosity. In the heyday of US capitalism, say 1940s-70s, when the companies had money to burn, they'd entertain their sales conventions and other gatherings with elaborate shows about their products and services, some of which were professional-quality productions. The idea was both to inform the salesfolk about the products they'd be selling and to send them out enthusiastically to do it.

And sometimes the companies would press small runs of souvenir recordings of the shows, and it was in used record bins that the authors of the book found them and learned about the phenomenon.

But there were also movies, not cinescopes of the stage shows, but short films made to be shown at the same conventions. These are even rarer than the records, most of them surviving only in the basements of the people who made them. Some of these were collected in a documentary called Bathtubs Over Broadway, which I haven't seen and didn't know about.

But I did learn that Steve Young, co-author of the book,* has been going around giving an illustrated talk with film clips. He came to San Francisco on Tuesday, so I decided to go. It was at a tiny independent movie house in the outer Richmond, which required long bus rides to get there (I try not to drive in the City, and park at a transit station just outside its limits). I was early and had plenty of time to study the schedule posted outside. On Dec. 25 they're showing Die Hard, which I guess reveals which side of the burning "Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?" controversy they're on. The seats were old and creaky and gave me leg cramps, so I spent most of the show standing in the back.

Young explained that he used to write for David Letterman - it fits: he sounds like a cross between Letterman and Robert Downey Jr., and rather looks like that too - and his job included scouring used record bins to find weird things for Dave to make fun of on the show. But Young became captivated by the industrial musicals he'd found and eventually he made collecting and reproducing them his main occupation. He befriended many of the surviving creators and cast members - who often could barely remember doing this; you learn your part, you perform it once, you forget it and go on to the next thing - and it was from some of them that he got these movies.

The show consisted of two hours of Young standing in front of the screen introducing the clips, and then moving out of the way while they were shown. They were, as promised, goofy and weirdly captivating. One was a saga of a man who falls in love with a woman whose charms evidently symbolize the virtues of GE silicone products. One featured a Roman goddess named Femma who introduces women to exotic new bathroom fixtures - including, get this, a faucet that senses your approach and automatically turns on. Ordinary enough today, but cutting-edge in 1960-odd. But the strangest was the sales film for the 1959 Edsel. This was the year after the Edsel had become the laughing-stock of the auto industry but the year before Ford pulled the plug on it. The film featured a frantic man who tugged his necktie loose and shed his jacket while bellowing "Sell the car! Sell the car!"

It was a weird but enlightening evening out.

*This being San Francisco, he felt obliged to mention that he was not the football player of that name. "I can't do what he does, and he can't do what I do."

Thursday, December 7, 2023


It's the first night of Hanukkah, so I celebrated by making matzo ball soup for dinner. And then, of course, before serving it I lit the candles, and said the blessings - the three blessings for the first night, two being enough for the rest, as the Shehecheyanu, the most all-purpose of all Jewish blessings, is added to the first.

And, in a mental state verging on cognitive dissonance, this is also the day I pulled the artificial Christmas tree out of storage and set it up for B. to decorate (which she did later in the day, mostly while I was out, to the accompaniment of a DVD of The Muppet Christmas Carol). I've been setting up the tree every year for the last 30+, but not previously, I think, on the same day as the first night of Hanukkah. It's OK with me - it's her tree, I'm just the delivery boy - but it feels a little odd and it's definitely not what I would have expected as a boy when I was very patriotic about my faith.

I also got out today to the Beethoven Center at the university library for their monthly noon concert, which this month had no Beethoven in it. But Beethoven loved fugues, so he'd been unlikely to object to a brass quintet playing excerpts from Bach's The Art of Fugue. Nor, perhaps, would he have objected to Malcolm Arnold's Brass Quintet, though he lived before its time.

It's been raining, but not enough to wash away the mud left behind by the September fence workers in our parking space. It's just mud (dirt when dry) and hard to keep from tracking around on my shoes.

I'll have to put off an account of Tuesday for another day.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

daily report

Well, first there was a review of Symphony San Jose on Sunday. A very well-performed show. The guy who came in to perform his own Americana-folksy mandolin concerto reminded me of the guy who came in several years ago to perform his own Americana-folksy violin concerto, and I made the comparison in the review. I wonder if there's a whole genre of such people or if I just happened to have come across the only two.

SSJ plays on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Usually I go to the evening concert, but this Saturday we'd have just gotten home from the Mythopoeic reading and eating meeting I've described before in these, uh, pages? precincts? And it would have been tiresome anyway, as waiting on the porch for us on our return was the delivery of our new floor lamp, the old one having died a few days ago, so I had to get that set up and then go out and buy light bulbs for it. This one takes LED bulbs, which is a little more convenient than the old one which ran on halogen bulbs, which are difficult to get and nasty to install. But we'd had a halogen lamp because it was one of the few that was bright enough to actually, like, illuminate the room. This one, fortunately, is also bright, and I'd found it by searching for "300 watt floor lamp."

Now I have to take the old lamp to the recycle center, and it's not the only thing I have to take. My computer keyboard is beginning to die. First the tab key crunched, which at least is better than it was doing for a while, which was staying on every time I touched it, emitting continuous tab commands until I pried it back up with a paper clip. Now many of the letter keys are finding it hard to respond too soon after I press another key, and I'm finding that typing "of" gives me "o" or typing "least" gives me "last" and so forth.

But I'm not taking that to the knackers' yard, but the one I bought online to replace it. (I use an ergonomic wired keyboard, so selections are limited.) It was supposed to be new/refurbished, and it looked fine, but it proved to have several completely nonfunctional keys, including "f", "o", and "x", and the comma. I submitted it to return, but the vendor e-mailed me saying don't return it, they'll just issue me a refund, so maybe they expected that their products would suck.

Monday turned out to be no time to write the review, as most of the morning was occupied taking the cats to the vet for their annual checkup, shots, and pedicure. Restrictions have eased enough that they're now allowing owners to come in for the checkup, so I did that and got to witness the cats, who'd been most reluctant to get in the carriers, now be reluctant to get out. The vet, who is a lot younger and more limber than we are, got down on the floor, braced her knees around the carrier, and pulled.

Now the cats are having their usual disparate post-vet reactions. Maia is afraid to eat in the mornings, because that's where and when we try to trap the cats for the vet. (In fact she'd been suspicious even on the day, and wouldn't eat then, hiding downstairs under the couch, enabling me to tip it over while B. scooped in and nabbed her.) So Tybalt tries to eat hers instead. You'd think he was untraumatized, except that now he's more insistent than ever, whenever I'm sitting at my desk, on either being held in my arms or on prowling around the desk in front of the screen, and as cats are not translucent outside of Donald Westlake novels, both these prevent me from getting any writing done, so I have to lock him out of the room.

I finally got the review finished on Tuesday morning just before the deadline, before heading out on a day/evening outing of a slightly unusual sort for me, but which I'd best save for tomorrow's post.

Monday, December 4, 2023

choosing Brexit

When the sticking point of the protracted Brexit negotiations proved to be the Irish Border question, I commented that I did not recall this having been raised as an issue during the referendum campaign. I was told that no, it was an issue. But I didn't think so, and now I have evidence: a book called All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class by Tim Shipman (Collins, 2016). Despite being very long (630 pages) and full, this was something of an instant book, covering the referendum campaign and the subsequent race for Tory leader. The referendum was in June, May became PM in July, and the book is dated October. That means it was written with no hindsight whatever. No idea of the risible events of the following three years, nor of the even more risible events of the three years after that. Ends with the hope that May will prove a strong and decisive PM, ho ho.

And lots of retroactively interesting tidbits along the way. Seeking to line up support for the Stay position in the referendum among his own MPs, the book recounts, Cameron asked a rising young MP named Rishi Sunak to come and see him. Sunak declined: he was planning to vote Leave and he didn't want to subject himself to Cameron's arguments against it. This is, of course, the same Rishi Sunak who is now PM and who famously recently got Cameron to come and see him.

But there's not a word about Ireland or the border issue along the way. Nothing of it. The referendum campaign, we're told, was fought on two issues. One was the economy, by which was meant Brexit's potential effects on the UK economy as a whole. The other was immigration. Leave campaigners seemed convinced that Turkey was about to join the EU and that Britain would shortly be after subjected to an invasion of Turks. The bizarre xenophobia of this is not much discussed (there's also a few bits about hatred of Poles), but it's certainly there. What'll happen to Northern Ireland? Nary a drop.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

reading and eating accomplished

So we held our book discussion group's annual Reading and Eating Meeting yesterday in the back room that I'd reserved of the Irish pub/restaurant. It was a success. Seven people showed up, which was actually close to all our regular attendance, and that was enough to satisfy our hosts, as we all ordered full lunches and at least one drink - most of us had two. Service was excellent, and so was the food.

With the lights on and the table set, the room was much less dank or stuffy than it had looked when I checked it out on a previous visit. There was some noise from the kitchen but not enough to interfere with the reading. Occasional staffers walking through to get to the building's back door were not too distracting. And we built a schedule for next year's discussions without much hemming or hawing. It was a successful experiment, and general agreement was that if we still can't find an appropriate living room, we can do this again next year.

For my reading choice, I said that since we were in a pub, I'd read a famous scene taking place in one: but this is not the version you know. Part of it goes like this:
Suddenly Bingo noticed that a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit, sitting in the shadows behind the others, was also listening intently. He had an enormous mug (more like a jug) in front of him, and was smoking a broken-stemmed pipe right under his rather long nose. He was dressed in dark rough brown cloth, and had a hood on, in spite of the warmth - and, very remarkably, he had wooden shoes! Bingo could see them sticking out under the table in front of him.
"Who is that over there?" said Bingo, when he got a chance to whisper to Mr Butterbur. "I don't think you introduced him."
"Him?" said Barnabas, cocking an eye without turning his head. "O! that is one of the wild folk - rangers we call 'em. He has been coming in now and again (in autumn and winter mostly) the last few years; but he seldom talks. Not but what he can tell some rare tales when he has a mind, you take my word. What his right name is I never heard, but he's known round here as Trotter. You can hear him coming along the road in those shoes: clitter-clap - when he walks on a path, which isn't often. Why does he wear 'em? Well, that I can't say. But there ain't no accounting for East or West, as we say here, meaning the Rangers and the Shire-folk, begging your pardon."
That's the first draft.

Friday, December 1, 2023

sf novel review

The Kuiper Belt Job by David D. Levine (Caesik, 2023)

Let me admit my bias from the start: the author is an old friend, since before he'd ever published any fiction. But it didn't take that for me to admire his short stories, and what made me particularly eager for this novel was his post in Scalzi's Big Idea series, in which he describes his intent of writing a caper novel featuring a group of charming rogues who form a "found family," along the lines of - among other examples - the Serenity gang from Firefly.

As a fan of Firefly, and also of caper stories, my interest was immediately caught. What I especially liked about Firefly, as I mentioned in comments, was that it didn't have one protagonist with the other characters as satellites. Though it had a main character, the whole cast was important, and the relationships were many-to-many. Each had a relationship of some sort with each of the others, and each of these was distinct.

I looked forward to the same thing from David's book, and pretty much found it there. I picked up a copy on my next visit to the local independent bookstore, and read it in about three gulps. It's set in an interplanetary future, with well-developed human settlements on moons, asteroids, and artificial satellites, with spaceships zipping around between them. As the title reveals, the gang are gearing up to pull a heist out in the Kuiper belt, which is a pretty fair clip away even in this environment, so there's a lot of prep work, as well as gathering together the gang to pull it.

But it begins with a flashback to an earlier caper when they're all together, along with some others who don't show up in the later story. One of the trickiest tasks in written fiction is introducing a large cast of characters all at once while not confusing or overwhelming the reader or causing them to think, "Now which one was that again?" You don't have the faces and voices of actors to give an assist as in tv shows or movies. In that aspect, this book is a masterpiece, the craft of fiction writing performed at its highest level. The author carefully hands the people out at the beginning, and even after chapters of gap, I never felt any confusion. The plot is a series of capers, and as one succeeded another, I felt absolutely no sense of weariness, of "here we go again" that's so common in stories so structured. Everything was exciting and interesting. The gang are crooks, yes, but they have honor among themselves and I felt no sense of guilt in identifying with them.

The cast all have obvious Firefly analogues (and if they aren't obvious, the Big Idea post will clue you in), but as individual characters they're very different from the Firefly equivalents (except for Damien the pilot, who is Wash to a tee). I found it easier, in fact, not to imagine the actors from Firefly playing the parts in my head: it only interfered with the individuality of these characters.

There were only a couple of problems. First, though the characters were highly distinct, their voices weren't. Each major character gets a chapter in the first person, and they don't sound different. But such disparate people really should. If this story were told in intercutting first person, this sameness would be disastrous. Separated out, however, it's no more than distracting. By the time we got to person D's chapter, I had to keep reminding myself that we were no longer in the head of person C.

The other problem is that, near the end, the plot takes a sudden and disconcerting left turn. This surprises the characters as much as it does the reader, but that doesn't help. It introduces a major and uncharacteristic moral failing, which isn't ignored but is kind of brushed aside. That and the attendant restructuring of the basis of the story leave a sour taste, and make me less eager for sequels than I would be.

But don't let those stop you. This is overall a delightfully readable sf adventure tale that in large part is a really excellent novel.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

"Dudamel conducts Brahms" read the slugline on the Symphony's publicity for this concert. But the Brahms was the least significant, or interesting, thing in it. As is usually the case with a Dudamel guest appearance, he brought along something new from Latin America: something good, too - two somethings, and I spent most of my review on those.

Both Gabriela Ortiz, whom I've heard before, and Gonzalo Grau, whom I hadn't, have got the knack for Latin color, and Dudamel conducted them both with his customary Latin verve.

Then there was the Brahms, which approached the soporific, and which Lisa Irontongue, who was at the same performance, found even more annoying than I did. But Lisa seemed puzzled that the finale came out rather well. It seemed to me that this was attendant on Dudamel's generally slow and cautious approach being entirely deliberate, for whatever mysterious reason. Whenever the music sped up, got louder, approached a climax, Dudamel responded by exhibiting some of that energy he'd expended so generously on Ortiz and Grau, though here in a rather dutiful, mechanical manner. The finale is simply by far the fastest and loudest movement of the Brahms Second, and so it got the most of this. Therefore the least uninteresting. And that's it, that's the whole story.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Tolkien Studies 20: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 20 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE in a few months.

As previously announced, Verlyn Flieger is retiring as co-editor of Tolkien Studies as of the publication of volume 20. Yvette Kisor is joining the editorial team with volume 21. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 20 (2023)
  • David Bratman, "Charles E. Noad, 1949-2023"
  • John M. Bowers, "Durin's Stone, the Ruthwell Cross, and the Dream of the Rood"
  • Verlyn Flieger, "Tolkien's Great Tales"
  • Thomas P. Hillman, "The Great Tales, Tragedy, and Fairy-story in 'The Choices of Master Samwise'"
  • John F. Whitmire, Jr., "An Archaeology of Hope and Despair in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen"
  • Kenton L. Sena, "Ecological Memory in Middle-earth: Environmental Legacies of Abuse and Care in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien"
  • Steven Kielich, "The Many Eyes of Middle-earth: Looking at the Gaze in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings"
  • Ben Reinhard, "The Pillars of Atlantis: Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Shadow of World War II"
  • Patrick Lyon, "Though You Travel Every Road: Heraclitean Paths in Middle-earth"
  • Seth Kreeger, "Metaphysical Considerations of Eä: Creation and Providence in Tolkien and Aquinas"
Notes and Documents
  • Peter Gilliver, "Caught in the Philological Net: Tolkien's Lexicographers"
  • Samuel Cardwell, "A Second Source for Samwise?"
Book Reviews
  • The Battle of Maldon: Together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son and 'The Tradition of Versification in Old English,' by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Peter Grybauskas, reviewed by Michael D.C. Drout
  • The Great Tales Never End: Essays in Memory of Christopher Tolkien, edited by Richard Ovenden and Catherine McIlwaine, reviewed by Grace Khuri
  • The Fall of Númenor and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Brian Sibley, reviewed by Dan'l Danehy-Oakes
  • Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth, by Austin M. Freeman, reviewed by The Rev. Tom Emanuel
  • Tolkien's Library: An Annotated Checklist, 2nd edition, by Oronzo Cilli, reviewed by David Bratman
  • Cami D. Agan, David Bratman, Kate Neville, Jennifer Rogers, Jonathan Evans, John Wm. Houghton, and John Magoun, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2020"
  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (in English) for 2021"
  • "Errata: Chronology of The Lord of the Rings, TS 19 Supp."

Sunday, November 26, 2023

planning ahead

Three weeks ago, I reserved the back room in a restaurant for our book discussion group's annual Reading and Eating Meeting, having lunch there in the process. The meeting date was four weeks in the future, one week now.

Having had occasional experience in the past of initiating and finalizing definite plans for a future date, only to find that the other party assumes that you've canceled the plans because you don't repeatedly ping them in the interim, I decided that I'd better ping before I e-mailed our members the last reminder for the meeting and the details of how to get there.

That meant driving up there again and having lunch again, far from an objectionable prospect. It was quiet there again, and I found the same two staff members on duty as had been there that earlier Saturday. We're meeting next Saturday, so I sense stability here. What's more, they remembered me, apparently for my distinctive habit of reading a book at the table, and they also confirmed the reservation.

So that's done. I went home and wrote the e-mail.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

while the cats waited to be fed

We were kind of late getting home from Thanksgiving at our niece's house, due to the game in which B. got heavily involved - something in which each player draws a picture and the others guess what it's of. (I declined: I'm not a game-playing animal and I can't draw.) So the cats weren't fed until late.

Human food where we went was good. Nephew (niece's husband) took charge of cooking and carving the turkey, despite the limitation of having his favored arm in a sling (recovering from rotator cuff surgery), and successfully achieved tender breast meat. I made an asparagus quiche, the only veggie (not counting the carb dishes) on the table, but not much of it got eaten. That's OK, the rest will be our dinner the next day.

Guests were a combination of family and friends. Hosts' son, now a university sophomore with a beard (he's in advance of me: I didn't grow my beard till I was a rising junior, and at the time it was a lot scragglier than his), made it in from the distant East. His best friends' parents were there. So were the matron of honor at the now 8-year-ago wedding of our other nephew and niece (who were also there) and her daughter, the one who screeched "Hi Mommy!" during the ceremony but is now much older and more sedate.

Much conversation over the cats which our hosts were fostering, and it looks like some adoptions are in the works. (Not from us. We have two, and that's enough.) Also the water which one guest was drinking to clear her palate between glasses of wine. She noted the incongruity of drinking it from a wine glass. I suggested she think of it as an extremely attenuated, possibly homeopathic, white wine: no alcohol, no grape juice, no flavor notes. Nothing about politics, or hardly even sports.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Tolkien's letters, take II

It's been a week now since the revised and expanded edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters was published in the US. I wandered down to my local independent bookstore that morning and there it was on the shelf.

I've been reading it, intermittently. It's 708 pages long. The previous edition was 502 pages long. Not only does it have newly-published letters, easily identifiable as they've been given interstitial serial numbers, but, especially in the earlier part of the chronologically-ordered book, additional material has been added to existing letters. That is not marked, but you can find it using this remarkable guide, though I fear that every time they update it (fixing typos, tweaking summaries), they give it a new URL. What I did was go through it with both editions open before me, and draw marginal lines down past the new material in the old letters. It's my copy and I can annotate it in whatever way seems useful.

If I did this for the whole book, it'd be insanely long, but here's a few gems from the new material in the earlier section of the book. This should tempt you into reading this book.
My daughter, aged 8, has long distinguished between literary and actual terrors. She can take any amount of dragon, and a reasonable dose of goblin; but we recently had to change all the handles on the chest-of-drawers in her room, because the former handles 'grinned at her', even in the dark.

[to a son contemplating marriage at an early age] I was less old than you when I met your mother, and I have remained faithful ever since. But that was not the first time I had felt 'in love'. [Really? Considering his living circumstances at the time, where would he have met his previous amour, and who could she have been?]

Last war, I often did not see my sweetheart (and later wife) for weeks and months. I only saw my brother about twice in 3 or 4 years.

Very few men, but practically all women set great store by dates and anniversaries. It does not follow that the men are wholly in the right about it! Anyway as a practical lesson in the way to live and conduct one's social affairs smoothly, this difference between the sexes is well worth remembering. A man can avoid a lot of trouble for himself, and avoid giving much pain to others, by noting it.

I said, outside Lichfield Cathedral, to a friend of my youth - long since dead of gas-gangrene (God rest his soul: I grieve still) [so it was most likely G.B. Smith] - 'Why is that cloud so beautiful?' He said: 'Because you have begun to write poetry, John Ronald.' He was wrong. It was because Death was near, and all was intolerably fair, lost ere grasped. That was why I began to write poetry.

I have no advice to give except to practice your religion as well as you can: taking every opportunity of the sacraments (esp. Confession) and pray: Pray on your feet, in cars, in blank moments of boredom. Not only petitionary prayer.

Open air preacher being heckled, particularly by one ill-favoured and rather dirty little man on the outskirts. He kept on shouting, whenever the preacher paused for breath: 'Gah! Christianity's been in the world 2000 years, and what good's it done?' waving towards the unsavoury surrounding slum. The preacher at last lost his temper and shouted back: 'Water's been in the world more than 2000 years, and look at your neck!'

On Sat. we go into that infernal, abominable, never to be sufficiently execrated Double S[ummer] Time (which has contributed as much as any other single factor to my weariness). God deliver us from it soon. I shd. like to put 'Freedom of the Clock' or 'Hands of the Hour Hand' into the Atlantic Charter. (Not that that would do much good.) [A fellow hater of DST! God bless you, Professor!]

I would not really like to endure my teens again, but I fancy (idly, for the thought is really meaningless) I could at least make better use of the time since 25 (espec. 25-45) if 'I had it again.' But 'I've had it' as they say now. There is of course always some best use we can make of our time, even in the most abominable exterior circumstances, and only one time (with no return) in which to make it.

Monday, November 20, 2023

camera obscura

I have finally reached success, sort of, in my quest for a camera for my computer.

When the pandemic began and meetings on Zoom entered my consciousness, I searched online for a simple camera to plug into a USB port in my computer. I bought one, and it works, but the cable is only 4 feet long, too short to put it in an agreeable spot.

So I went back on line and ordered an extension cable - 3 feet long, which was barely long enough. It worked: for about six months. Then when I plugged it in, Zoom would fail to recognize that a camera was there. The camera alone worked fine; it was the cable.

So I bought another one. It too worked fine for about six months and then failed.

I left a bad review and bought a longer cable. It didn't work at all.

Figuring the problem was that the cable might not be camera-enabled, I tried to find another cable that was camera-enabled and was also - which was mostly incompatible with being camera-enabled - a USB-A male to female port cable. Eventually I found one. But, though it said it was camera enabled, it didn't work at all either.

At that point I figured the only solution was to get a new camera. But few of the likely cameras had info in their description saying how long the cable was, and those which did the cable was too short. The photos that you can close-up on didn't show the cables at all.

But eventually I found one, and today was my first opportunity to see if it works. It does, and the cable is long enough. Only problem is that, although I'm placing it in the same spot as the previous camera, its viewshot is much more close-up. If there's a way to modify that, I don't know what it is.

But at least for the moment it works.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

concert review: Symphony Parnassus

I'd long known of this group, but I'd never been to one of its concerts before.

It started out as a faculty ensemble at the local medical school, and it still has a lot of doctors and other professionals in its ranks, though the only name I was familiar with was the principal violist, who is also a locally noted solo pianist. I also know the conductor, Stephen Paulson, as he is also the principal bassoon for the San Francisco Symphony (and who looks like a cross between Allen Ginsberg and Santa Claus).

They split their concerts between two venues in San Francisco, both tiny auditoriums with extremely bright acoustics. This concert was at the main hall of the San Francisco Conservatory. The place was absolutely packed. Other community orchestras would be so jealous.

As a volunteer group, Parnassus's technical level of playing is outstanding, just about good enough to be professional. Stylistically, they play as you would expect doctors to: brisk, clear-cut, devoid of excess emotion.

This turns out to be the right attitude to approach Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with (Parker Van Ostrand, a Conservatory student, was soloist): no fat, no longeurs, just a little raw Tchaikovsky. Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, though, came out a bit oddly, with unnervingly soft climaxes in the slow movements, plus an ending so abrupt nobody knew when to clap.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

concert cohesion

I had a busy day last Sunday. I was reviewing two concerts for my two outlets. The first concert was at 4 pm in Palo Alto; that meant it should be over about 6. It's about a half hour drive from there to Willow Glen, where the second concert began at 7. So if I packed a bag lunch in my car, I figured, and ate it on the way, I should make it without too much squeezing.

The 4 PM concert was the New Millennium Chamber Orchestra, and it was an interesting combination of 18th century music from different periods of the century plus two 21st century works by American women, both of whom I'd heard works by before.

But it wasn't over until 6:10, and after a pit stop - for I knew the facilities were even more hazardous where I was going than where I came from - I wasn't on my way until 6:15. I pulled into a parking place - some distance away, because there's only street parking there and I was late - at 6:52. Fortunately I didn't have to rush, and the concert didn't begin until 7:05 anyway. This was the San Jose Chamber Orchestra again - I'd just done them - in a bizarre meeting of two disparate contemporary composers, Stacy Garrop and John Tavener.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

concert review: Other Minds Festival

Other Minds is an annual festival of new and experimental music. I've been to a few of its concerts before when they were playing something I really wanted to hear: Henry Cowell retrospectives, Lou Harrison retrospectives, Michael Nyman. On Wednesday, perforce I found myself attending an Other Minds concert of stuff I didn't know anything about for no more reason than it was what was on. I don't think I'll do this again.

The concert consisted of sets running about 3/4 of an hour each by two composers/performers.

First was Ellen Arkbro, who has studied with LaMonte Young and taken up his ideas of sustained tones with minimal motion but without, it seems, his ideas of expansive universal embrace. She began by turning on a computer emitting a painfully loud electronic buzzing, which changed pitch occasionally, on top of which she softly added held trumpet notes. Then she turned that off, replacing the buzzing with equally painful dissonant chords from three guys on tubas. (Irrelevant thoughts of the three guys on bass at the bottom of the Ninth.)

Second was Craig Taborn, who improvises at the piano. He's reputedly classed as a jazz pianist, but only a little of what he played sounded like jazz. A little more sounded like wildly cascading atonalism. But most of it sounded like children's finger exercises.

Some music finds profundity within surface simplicity, and I cherish such music. But other work just captures the surface.


I will admit it was impressive to discover, during the introductions preceding the concert, that the old white-haired man sitting right in front of me was Morton Subotnick. I heard his Silver Apples of the Moon half a century ago, my first exposure to purpose-written electronic music, and though I didn't like it very much my mind was expanded thereby.


It remains to be noted that this concert took place in San Francisco during the APEC conference and, therefore, also during the protests against the APEC conference. I ensured beforehand that I wouldn't have to pass through those parts of the city and that didn't cause me any problems. I had a little less luck regarding the meeting of Biden and Xi at a country estate located just off the freeway on my route up. The local road closures for this didn't cause any backups on the freeway, but the protests outside those closures did.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

o to be a blogger

1. Due tribute to the fine sf author Michael Bishop, who died on Monday. His novel Unicorn Mountain won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 1989, and my vote was among those it got. In the sf field he seems most known for his weird and imaginative tribute novel Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas. But that wasn't his only story in honor of PKD: There's also his even more peculiar short "Rogue Tomato," which is the first Bishop story I ever read, never to be forgotten. When I got to meet him in person a couple years later, I mostly burbled about "Rogue Tomato."
Then there was the time that Ursula K. Le Guin, a woman writer with children, lamented the lack of depiction of her kind in fiction. Has there ever, she asked, been a protagonist who was a woman writer with children in a novel written by a man? And the answer was yes: Who Made Stevie Crye? by Michael Bishop.
But he also wrote many other notable and impressively readable books.
Michael Bishop also suffered the unspeakable tragedy of having his son, who was an instructor at Virginia Tech, killed in the massacre shooting there in 2007.

2. Due crogglement at the appointment of former UK prime minister David Cameron as the new foreign secretary. But, many exclaimed, he isn't even a member of Parliament any more! (The UK, plus the Republic of Ireland and so far as I know no other countries, functionally require their political executives to simultaneously be members of the legislature. This supposedly is so that they can stand up in the legislature and answer for themselves, but there are many other ways to make executives answerable to legislators.) So that's easy enough, he's being appointed to the House of Lords. But the House of Lords, being very much these days a secondary body, is not where cabinet members sit, aside from the Lords floor leader. So let's check the historical facts here, and establish that:
a) It does still happen that other cabinet members sit in the Lords. Both Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown had them for relatively brief periods.
b) It's also happened more than once since the Lords demotion that the foreign secretary in particular has sat in the Lords (one remembers Lord Halifax in the runup to WW2), but until now it hadn't happened for 40 years.
c) It's also occasionally happened that former prime ministers return to the cabinet in subsidiary roles, but until now not for 50 years.

3. I am thankful that people writing about Artificial Intelligence seem to be taking to calling it A.I. Calling it AI in sans-serif typefaces made it look too much like Al, as in Al Haig or Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al. And I would keep wondering who this Al character was.

4. Here's a list of the longest-running shows on Broadway. The ones I've seen on stage are:
Cats (touring company, in San Jose)
Les Misérables (touring company, in San Francisco)
Rent (Oregon Shakespeare Festival production)
Fiddler on the Roof (at least twice, including a fabulous high school production)
Hello, Dolly! (in San Francisco years ago, can't remember the circumstances)
My Fair Lady (at least four times, most recently the Lincoln Center revival on my last trip to NYC)

Sunday, November 12, 2023

concert review: California Symphony

The three works on this concert had two things in common: they're all cheerful, upbeat music, and they have something to do with water.

Handel's Water Music originated as a long-form serenade for entertainment at a royal dinner held on a barge on the Thames. We had about 45 minutes of it, in chipper, energetic performances.

Robert Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony was written in the flush of excitement of moving to the Rhineland to take up an appointment as conductor of an orchestra there. Schumann knew he wasn't a good conductor; he should have guessed this wouldn't end well. But for the moment, he was enthusiastic, and so is this symphony. It was a big, bold, dynamic performance, full of expressive variations in volume and tempo. Lots of great brass work, and not just in the movement depicting a grand ceremony in Cologne Cathedral across the river.

Chance of Rain is the third and final piece composed by Viet Cuong during his residency as house composer. It's a fast and nervous work consisting mostly of static phase minimalism, which gives the music an echo effect. Then - without changing the underlying music any - he throws in a popular dance beat on top.

Friday, November 10, 2023

not as final as I'd hoped

Phone. Person taking a survey. Didn't stop to ask if I wanted to be surveyed, plunged in to the first question, which was, "What's the most important problem facing your community?"

I said, "Well, I'd put unwanted phone calls high on the list," and hung up.

Would you believe they called me back? Get a clue!

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

concert review: Sitkovetsky Trio

This was a challenging concert to review, because I realized as I sat down to write that I didn't have much to say about it. It was a decent performance. I settled on emphasizing that I thought some of the pieces worked better than others.

My editor had alerted the staff not to waste space on long explanations of the California Festival that many of this and next week's concerts that we're covering are part of. We've published some feature articles about the festival and people seeking details can go there. Basically it seems to be a designation dropped on any concert this month with music associated with California in it.

And this one got it, despite 3/4 of it being the usual 19C European stuff, because the fourth work is by the contemporary Julia Adolphe. She wasn't born or raised in California, she doesn't live here now, but she was in LA for a few years when at grad school at USC, and that seems to make her enough of a Californian to make it worth slapping a California Festival label on this concert.

I didn't mention it at all.

Monday, November 6, 2023

legal wiseguy

Our play-reading group has just finished with The Merchant of Venice, and rather than discuss the anti-semitism in the play, I'd like to address the twists in logic in the trial scene.

Shylock the moneylender, who has a major grudge against Antonio the merchant - the why of which goes back to the anti-semitism, so not for discussion today - lent him a large sum of money with a quaint forfeit should Antonio default: a pound of flesh from around Antonio's heart, to be cut out by Shylock himself.

Antonio did default, and now we've gone to court to test if the forfeit is valid. Portia in disguise appears as a learned attorney.

First she establishes that the forfeit is real and that Antonio agreed to it. Then, with a famous speech on the quality of mercy, she asks Shylock to be merciful. He refuses, and says he'll give no reason. He is offered twice the original loan amount, but says he'd rather have his bond.

Very well, says Portia, cut away.

But hold! she adds. You must not shed one drop of blood nor take an ounce more or less than a pound of flesh, lest your life be forfeit.

Shylock says, in that case I'll drop my demand and take the monetary offer.

Not a chance, says Portia. You said you'd have your bond.

This is the first place where Portia plays legal wiseguy. Shylock's refusal of the monetary offer was conditioned on his ability to take the forfeit. You've changed the conditions from when he made the choice. By making it in practice impossible for Shylock to take the forfeit - no demurrals now, you know that's what you've done - you've made it impossible for him to get what he says he wants, so he is justified in choosing again.

Then Portia cries hold! again. By seeking Antonio's life, and it's clear that threatening the pound of flesh is doing so, Shylock has broken Venetian law and again his life and goods are forfeit.

But wait a minute. Legal wiseguy again. If all that is true, then the loan was always invalid. Shylock should have been arrested when he first proposed the notion; if not, it still should have been thrown out of court at the first opportunity.

Having tricked and bamboozled Shylock, Portia proceeds to trick and bamboozle her own husband over a ring she gave him. WTF?

Sunday, November 5, 2023

in the restaurant

For half a century, early in December our Mythopoeic Society book discussion group has held an annual Reading and Eating Meeting. We gather for a potluck meal and then take turns reading short selections around the (once real, later theoretical) fire. But we have lost our (almost) invariable hosts. Amy died last spring and Edith moved back to her original home town of Buffalo. Nobody left has a large enough living room for the meal as well as the people, and since I've also inherited Edith's position as secretary (I was already the only person keeping track of meeting dates anyway), it was up to me to find a solution.

Somebody suggested that we rent a private room in a restaurant. Somebody had a suggestion: an Irish pub up the Peninsula that says it will rent out rooms or the whole restaurant. I asked for other suggestions. I got just one, but it's no longer open for lunch and we want to meet in the daytime, so that's out.

I'd never been to this pub, so I decided to check it out physically before I enquired. I knew about where it was, but I hadn't memorized the street number.

I couldn't find it.

I went to the nearest public library and looked the pub's address up on the computer. Turned out its sign was small and obscure, and was anyway hidden behind the awning that covers the outside tables.

Then I couldn't get in the restaurant. The entire place was being rented out that day, except for the outside tables. I sat at one of the outside tables and ordered a hamburger, which was pretty good. So was the bottle of Irish cider I had with it, despite the fact that the very young, very green server didn't know what "cider" was.

I had to come back later. I was free last Tuesday, but then I thought, it's Halloween so who knows what might be going on. I finally got there on Saturday, when they open early. This time I ordered the Irish breakfast. Don't tell the Irish this, but it's pretty much the same thing as an English breakfast, with the bacon and sausage and beans and black pudding and eggs and tomato and potatoes. It was very hearty and not totally unworthy of the name. So on the basis of two meals I give them a plus on food.

And I asked about reserving a room. This time I got the manager on duty, so the conversation was definitive. Turns out there's just one room, it's in the back and seats 20. Didn't look well ventilated. I was assured it's quiet, but that remains to be seen. They asked for a guarantee of ten attendees. I'm not at all sure we'll get that many, but I'm prepared to cover the cost of the non-appearers if there aren't. I'm just not sure if this is going to work very well.

Another reason it may not work is parking. It's in a very crowded downtown. Parking, if you can find any, is limited to two hours. That's not long enough for us. All I can say is that my own experience in the area outstaying the shorter limits on other parking spaces has not gotten me a ticket, so they don't appear to be very vigilant.

However, it is just a few blocks from a BART station, so people coming from BART direction can walk if they're willing to walk that far, or drivers can park in the BART garage, where there is no effective time limit on weekends.

Four weeks to the meeting, so I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, November 3, 2023

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Ludovic Morlot conducted.

Featured work, a crisp and vivid performance of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. This was supplemented by a screen on which were shown images of works by two local artists whom SFS commissioned to create pictures inspired by the scenes in the music. Fernando Escartiz made chicks in the shells and the Great Gate of Kiev very much like those of Viktor Hartmann who'd inspired Mussorgsky, and his gnome looked like Walt Kelly had drawn it. Liz Hernandez had a plain, black and white style, the sort that makes Grandma Moses look sophisticated.

Augustin Hadelich gave a smooth and effortless run through Dvorak's Violin Concerto.

The opening was a new piece by the French (of U.S. parentage) composer Betsy Jolas. Being 97 years old, Jolas is unsurprisingly an unreconstructed modernist, and her piece was 15 minutes of unreconstructed modernist twaddle.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023


I've been spending much of my time lately in copy- and format-editing for the batch of papers in this year's Tolkien Studies. Besides the substantive editing - making sure the prose makes sense and is grammatical, that the sources are quoted correctly and cited accurately, etc. - there are some matters of format editing that I go through with every paper, some of them by global (or sequential individual) find-and-replace. Here's some of those and how they work in Word.

1. Ellipses. An ellipsis is three dots, but in Word it's a single character with three dots in it, which will be generated if you type three dots in a row, but it doesn't happen if you type dot-space-dot-space-dot. Fix those. Also, we don't follow MLA's briefly-held policy from years ago of putting brackets around supplied ellipses. Most ellipses are supplied, and if there are any in what you're quoting, a note "ellipses in original" next to the in-line citation is sufficient.

2. Hyphens and dashes. A dash in text is an em-dash without spaces around it. That can be fixed manually. Date and page ranges are an en-dash, but people usually use a hyphen. I find the easiest way to deal with this is a global search-and-replace for hyphens, going through the whole paper and hitting the "replace" or "next" buttons as needed. And yes, a journal whose issue is "Fall-Winter 2021", that's a date range.

3. Tabs. Even authors who use the Word paragraphing function of first-line indent, which is what we want, absently indent occasional paragraphs with the tab key. A simple Find search for the tab character (^t in the search box) will locate all of those.

4. Extra spaces. Not just double-spacing between sentences, which isn't actually that common, but weird extra spaces at the end or start of paragraphs. The paragraph break is ^p in search boxes, so [space]^p finds extra spaces at the end of paragraphs and ^p[space] finds them at the start. Hit "replace all" with a simple ^p and they're done. Do it twice in case there were two spaces. For double spacing, "replace all" of [space][space] with [space] does the same trick.

There are other things to watch for, like manual-typewriter style straight quotes, but that gives the idea.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

four concerts

Last Sunday, Israeli Chamber Project. I wasn't the only person who had to dash from the St. Lawrence Quartet concert at Stanford (which I was reviewing for SFCV: I linked to that one last week) to Kohl Mansion for another chamber music concert. So was the cellist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, who was giving the pre-concert talk for the latter. We both made it. Who didn't make it were three of the five intended musicians, who stayed in Israel with their families. Who did make it were the two already based in the U.S., the pianist and violinist, and they added an American clarinetist who was the teacher of their Israeli clarinetist. We had music for clarinet and piano (all arrangements), for violin and piano, and for all three from the offbeat pair of Khachaturian and Bartok. I reviewed this for the Daily Journal, assuming you can see the whole review and not just the first two paragraphs.

Thursday, JACK Quartet. One hour of string quartet music by John Luther Adams, a renowned contemporary composer not to be confused with the other composing John Adams. Most of this was in the thin, ghostly sound of harmonics, except that one movement proved you can also play harmonics loudly. I hadn't known that; nobody in my presence had ever tried before. The music was made of hushed figures forming chordal clouds. The same phrase would be played overlapping over itself, in a tumbling effect forming different irregular patterns. This was much the same formula used by Timo Andres last week, except Andres' music sounds precisely and coldly mechanically constructed, while Adams's feels human and breathing. The kind of music that emotionally satisfies me but would scandalize a rigid modernist. The only other music I can compare it to is that one movement composed of falling figures (it depicts walking down a mountainside) reminded me of Carl Orff's Entrata after William Byrd.

Friday, San Francisco Symphony. Elim Chan, a young (36) female conductor who was a late substitute, proved her mettle with this program. Les Illuminations, a song cycle by Benjamin Britten in French, was not something I anticipated with enthusiasm, but while I could not make out a word being sung even with the lyrics open in front of me, underneath it was a really interesting string orchestra work. Followed by Gustav Holst's epic The Planets with the ideal dynamism and sweep, and with every exotic instrumental color exactly where it should be. Special credit in the Saturn movement, where the alternating implacable/frantic passages were extremely implacable and exceedingly frantic.

This Sunday, Sonoma County Philharmonic. I drove two hours to hear this volunteer orchestra perform Alexander Glazunov's Fifth Symphony, a favorite work I'd never heard live before. It was worth it. Where Russian recordings are heavy and lumbering, this was a lively cavorting animal. I got to speak to conductor Norman Gamboa afterwards and thank him for it. Also on the program, Franz Liszt's Les Preludes, a familiar piece also somewhat reinvented for the occasion, and Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto with soloist Starla Breshears, a 15-year-old SF Conservatory student who had not only superb tone quality but also displayed a wide range of expression. Excellent work, and not just for her age.

Friday, October 27, 2023

folk music concert: The Gothard Sisters

I first heard of the Gothard Sisters on the concert calendar from the Freight and Salvage. It described their music as having folk, Celtic, classical, and new age influence, and, though the latter two influences turned out to be homeopathic in quantity, the list intrigued me enough that I looked the group up on YouTube. And the first two tracks I tried happened to be these:

And that was it: I said, I have to hear this group.

The concert turned out as good as I expected, especially the older material, because though they've been around for some time (though never at the Freight before), their performing quality has increased markedly in the last few years.

The repertoire was about half instrumentals (at least mostly original compositions) in an Irish dance tune vein, some of them accompanied by actual Irish step dancing at which all three sisters are accomplished; a quarter original songs, including the above "Meet Me at Dawn"; and a quarter cover songs, from the standard English/Celtic folk catalog ("Scarborough Fair," "The Wild Rover," "Wild Mountain Thyme") and for dessert a couple more contemporary numbers (John Denver's "Country Roads," Disney's "Touch the Sky").

The sisters, all late 20s/early 30s, hail from the Seattle suburbs (Edmonds, to be precise). In the instrumental pieces they all played on a wide battery, but in the songs they mostly stuck to a lineup of Willow on violin, Greta on guitar, and Solana principal vocalist and percussion.

Best anecdote of the evening: a story of the TSA agent who held up the line by trying to identify all their instruments through the x-ray machine. The only one that stumped him was the mandolin, which he eventually identified as a "hobbit guitar." And ever since then, that's what it is in the Gothard household.

This music isn't as heavyweight as that of my favorite folk sister groups of the past, like the Roches or the McGarrigles, but the purpose of music is to be enjoyed, whatever its density. I enjoyed this enough that I now count myself as a Gothard Sisters fan, and I came home with a CD and a t-shirt.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

four candles

At least. That's what B. was gathering in mid-afternoon on Tuesday in case our power, which had been out all day, didn't come back on. (Not misheard, thank you Ronnies.) In the event we didn't need them, as power returned by 4 PM, but the news from the utility had been only to give times for the next estimate (which they did keep to), plus the interesting if not particularly useful information that it was a small local outage caused by an equipment failure.

It did cause me a dilemma, as I had a mostly finished concert review on my computer that I needed to turn in that morning. I wound up phoning the repair shop where I usually take my computers and asking if I could bring in my CPU, plug it into their accessories, and strip this one file off onto a portable USB drive. They said fine and set me up. It took longer to boot up the computer than anything else.

I then took the portable drive into the public library's computer banks, edited it there, and sent it off by web mail, and here it is, a report on how the St. Lawrence String Quartet is doing a year after its first violinist, the fabulous Geoff Nuttall, died. A little sedately, but they're managing.

At least for now, they've turned themselves into a chamber collective, inviting guest performers in to play works for various instrumental combos. This time they brought in their own former other violinist and his wife, a violist, and played a 2-viola quintet. They've done stuff like this before, even when Geoff was alive, and they've also done a lot of piano quintets and the like. So there's a pathway here, on top of their not being the only ex-quartet to have kept itself going in this manner.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Tolkien Studies: an announcement

After 22 years as co-Editor of Tolkien Studies, Verlyn Flieger will be retiring to take up the position of Editor Emerita. One of the co-founders of the journal, Verlyn has co-edited 20 volumes of the journal. Highlights include editing previously unknown material by Tolkien, some of his scholarly works that had become very difficult to access, and many of the most insightful and original articles published on Tolkien in the past two decades. It is impossible to list even a fraction of the contributions Verlyn has made to every single aspect of the journal's operations, so we are reduced to saying the obvious: without Verlyn, there would be no Tolkien Studies. We will miss her terribly (though we expect to be drawing upon her wisdom on a regular basis). Volume 20, to be published later this year, will be the last issue she will have co-edited.

Tolkien Studies is delighted to announce that, beginning with Volume 21, Yvette Kisor, Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, will be taking up the position of co-Editor. The co-editor of Tolkien and Alterity, Yvette is well known to the international community of Tolkien scholars both for her publications on Tolkien, including "'The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun': Sexuality, Imagery, and Desire in Tolkien's Works," in Tolkien Studies 18 (2021), and her work organizing the influential "Tolkien at Kalamazoo" sessions at the International Congresses on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. A medievalist by training, Prof. Kisor has also published extensively on Old and Middle English literature. We are extremely pleased that she will be joining the journal's editorial team.

— The Editors

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Uncle Eddie

Many years ago, when I was working at the Stanford library, I came across in the stacks a book which must have been a British memoir from the early to mid 20th C. I didn't read the whole book, but I browsed through its photo section, and found afterwards that one particular photo had stuck in my memory.

It showed a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman at the beach surrounded by a gaggle of children, and it looked like this:

What struck me as memorable about the photo was that the elderly gentleman was named in the caption as "Uncle Eddie," and that he was further identified as Lord Dunsany. The fantasy author. Whose given name was Edward, yes.

The idea of the author of weird and ethereal stories being found at the beach with children and called Uncle Eddie tickled my fancy. But it was a retrospective tickle. I hadn't copied the photo or taken note of the book's title when I saw it, and when I went back to the part of the stacks where I'd seen it, I couldn't find it again. Figuring that Dunsany's avuncular status was probably genealogical rather than honorary, I made a cursory flip through his family tree for likely younger relatives, but I must not have looked very hard or I would surely have tripped across his wife's niece by marriage, Elizabeth Longford, the historical biographer.

It wasn't until decades later, just a couple months ago, that my search was answered when I came across this post by Doug Anderson describing Elizabeth Longford's memoir The Pebbled Shore, with its account of how she knew Lord Dunsany as Uncle Eddie. I knew this must be the right book, fetched it from the San Francisco public library when I was next there (this is the book I inadvertently left by my seat after watching the opera about Steve Jobs), and that's where the above photo was scanned from.

This time I read the book. Longford had an interesting life. As a student at Oxford in the 1920s she was the Zuleika Dobson of her day, a comparison made at the time, fascinating male undergraduates and young dons alike, many of whom impulsively proposed marriage to her. These were men who'd become notable in later life, and if you, fellow American reader, haven't heard of Hugh Gaitskell or Maurice Bowra, I have. But she turned them all down, until, a few years later, for reasons not clearly explained, she decided to accept one of them, the tall and gawky Frank Pakenham.

Frank was a scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and his mother's sister was Lady Dunsany, so that's how Uncle Eddie came in to the picture. Of the children in the photo, three are Elizabeth and Frank's offspring; the other two are family friends.

Married to Frank, Elizabeth became involved in his passion of left-wing politics, and they both ran (unsuccessfully) as Labour candidates for Parliament. Eventually Frank inherited the title of Lord Longford, under which he became known for his crusades against pornography and for paroling long-term prisoners. Meanwhile, Elizabeth started writing professionally via journalism, and moving into books when she started researching one about Joe Chamberlain, the arch-imperialist of Victorian Britain. Who was her great-uncle. Incidentally, she claims that Joe's son Neville (the future prime minister, yes) was another one who impulsively proposed marriage to her, though I kind of doubt that, as he married someone else when Elizabeth was four years old. So maybe we should take some of this with a pillar of salt.*

*Am I misremembering this? Was it Elizabeth's mother he proposed to instead? That's more chronologically possible.