Monday, July 31, 2023

Music@Menlo, week two

Last week was the second week of the annual three week chamber music festival, and I've been busy. My editor asked me to cover Thursday's mainstage concert, which was the late Romantic entry in the historical survey of chamber music, and Friday's "Overture concert" in the same review. The Overtures are collaborations between the mainstage artists and the 'young professionals,' who are here in a student capacity but, really, are fully professional in every way. They put on the Prelude concerts before the mainstage events, and they're often better. I threw in a paragraph on Thursday's for no extra charge.

So here's that monster, having been trimmed by my editors lightly but intelligently, in the manner of a delicate haircut. The briefer pieces in the mainstage event could have been cut with no loss, but the big solemn Brahms and Dvořák, plus the strange and weird Suk and Elgar quintets in the Overture, were all very nicely done. I like piano quintets (that's quintets for piano and strings); they're my favorite genre of chamber music, and to get three of them - Beach, Suk, and Elgar - plus Brahms's clarinet quintet in two concerts, with Bloch's quintet coming up (I heard that on Sunday, much better than the usual performance), was a delight.

I also snuck into an earlier Prelude concert the previous Sunday for a chance to hear Brahms's Op. 25 piano quartet, another favorite work (Beethoven's "Ghost" piano trio was also on the program). Because the clarinet would be so prominent in Thursday's concert and also on next Sunday's which I was also to review, I decided to go to the clarinetist's master class, which was on Tuesday. Since the students (both levels) are only strings and piano, this was an opportunity to hear what happens when none of the students are playing the master class instructor's instrument.

Some master class instructors focus closely on the instruments they know. If it's a piano-and-strings work and the instructor is a string player, the pianist may not get a single word of advice. Or, even more conspicuously, if the instructor is a pianist, the student pianist may get all the attention while the string players are ignored. The best instructors don't do that, and focus more on the general import and effect of the sound, and not on technical details of playing. That way they can address all their students at once. The clarinetist was fairly good at that, though it turned out that the Beethoven violin, cello, and piano trio being played was actually an alternative edition of a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, which the clarinetist knew well and indeed kept saying clarinet when he meant violin.

The second of the weekly Young Performers concerts (these are the teens and preteens, also amazingly professional) was on my must-go list because it included a movement from Brahms's B-flat Sextet, one of my favorite works ever, and also some other great stuff including two groups doing successively the first and final movements of Dvořák's A major quintet (ta-da, another piano quintet), plus an impressively delicate reading of the opening of Ravel's Piano Trio. The pianist, speaking beforehand, had trouble pronouncing the name Ravel, but she had no trouble playing his music.

I didn't get to any of the Beethoven string quartet concerts, but I did buy the livestream/recorded version of the Razumovsky quartets. But this time I was skeptical of the results. The problem is that the Calidore Quartet's signal virtue is the dry intensity of their playing. This is an enormous, even spellbinding, virtue in some repertoire, but I'm not sure if it's the best way to approach Beethoven. Especially in his late quartets, Beethoven is already dry and intense enough. The way to transcendent performances of those is to crack them open and find the sweet moisture inside. Too many can't do that, but those who can ... yum.

The Razumovskys aren't late works, but something of the same applies. I thought these performances of the first two were dull, dry, and ineffective. For the third quartet, however, the Calidore caught on and did a dandy, lively and effective, job. Should I listen to some more later? My jury is still out on that one.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


I'm still going frequently to the Menlo Festival - more on that later, when my paid reviews begin to come out - but on Friday I took in (via Zoom, which was the better way to do it) a panel discussion at UC Berkeley on Robert Oppenheimer's years at the university (he was a professor of physics there in 1929-43), geared to the new movie though not all the panelists had seen it.

There were professors of journalism (Jon Else, creator of the documentary The Day After Trinity), history, theoretical physics, and nuclear engineering, all at Berkeley, and a weapons physicist at the Los Alamos lab (where Oppenheimer was famously the director who made the A-bomb in 1943-45). The last made frequent references to interesting documents he'd found while rooting around in the Los Alamos archives. "Of course, that's still classified," he would add.

Little of what they said was new or original; its value came in its endorsement by their considered opinions. Only about a quarter of what was said related to Oppenheimer's pre-war physics work: he did some of the earliest work applying quantum theory and was the first person to theorize the concept of what were later named black holes, but though his physics was original and valuable, it wasn't at Einstein level; Oppenheimer's true worth came in his creation of the first major US school of theoretical physics here at Berkeley, one which - his successor proudly informed us - maintains its leading status to this day. That Oppenheimer had an equally brilliant experimentalist in Ernest Lawrence to collaborate with was an important factor. And he did all this while still in his 30s.

Most of the discussion focused on what made Oppenheimer a great lab director at Los Alamos, some of which tied in to the characteristics that had made his physics leadership at Berkeley successful. His wide knowledge; his ability to learn, understand, and communicate new material; his organizational ability - he would reorganize lab departments as circumstances changed; his reliable intuition for making necessary decisions in the absence of experimental data; his insistence on allowing open interchange of ideas among the scientists. You can't generate the spark of creativity to get the job done if you try to bottle up info for security reasons; the way to respond to security concerns is to run faster.

It was Lawrence who convinced the scientific directors of the Manhattan Project (Compton & Bush) to consider Oppenheimer as a candidate for lab director. It was his post-war change to opposition to bomb work, as much as his pre-war flirtation with communism, that was probably responsible for the loss of his security clearance in 1954. Meanwhile, the growth of Berkeley physics after the war (both theoretical and experimental) was generated by government funding that built on the reputation of the Manhattan Project.

The panelists also noted the short amounts of time involved. It was only 7 years from the discovery of the neutron to its use in creating generated nuclear fission. The a-bomb was tested and then dropped within weeks. The real time crunch for making the bomb was not the design process at Los Alamos but the production of plutonium and enriched uranium elsewhere in the project.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

habemus librum

When I was first chosen as Scholar Guest of Honor for what turned into the 2022 Mythopoeic Conference, I was uncomfortably aware that I lacked something that most Guests of Honor had: a book.

True, I had published one book with the Mythopoeic Press, the book-publishing arm of the Mythopoeic Society, some years earlier: an edition of Charles Williams's Masques of Amen House. But it wasn't really mine: I'd edited it, not written it.

I had some essays, especially ones given as Mythcon papers. I knew my papers had been popular among a small circle of enthusiasts. Some of the essays had been published in obscure places and hadn't come to the attention of scholars who could have benefited from them. Some of them I'd never gotten around to publishing at all. I'd been wondering what to do about these, and here was my chance.

I wrote to Leslie Donovan, the publisher of the Mythopoeic Press - and incidentally the co-chair of the Mythcon that was having me as GoH - and suggested a collection of my essays. She said yes. Much selecting, permission-obtaining, editing, and laying-out followed. It should have been done in time for that Mythcon, but it's a year late.

Anyway, it's here now. It's titled Gifted Amateurs and Other Essays: on Tolkien, the Inklings, and Fantasy Literature. Some of you may have many books; this one is mine. Not up on the MythSoc website yet, but the purchase links are live.

Buy in paperback format: $19.95
Buy in Kindle format from Amazon: $9.99
Buy in Other ebook versions (from Smashwords) $9.99

Here's the table of contents:

Part 1: Tolkien
1. J.R.R. Tolkien: An Introduction to His Work
2. The Literary Value of The History of Middle-earth
3. Top Ten Rejected Plot Twists from The Lord of the Rings: A Textual Excursion into "The History of The Lord of the Rings"
4. The Artistry of Omissions and Revisions in The Lord of the Rings
5. Hobbit Names Aren't from Kentucky
6. Smith of Wootton Major and Genre Fantasy

Part 2: Inklings
7. "Gifted Amateurs": C.S. Lewis and the Inklings
8. The Inklings and the Pacific Ocean
9. C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy: An Informal View
10. Unmasquing Charles Williams

Part 3: Others
11. Imaginary Worlds, Sliced and Preserved
12. How Do You Solve a Problem Like King Arthur?
13. The Plays of Lord Dunsany
14. Mervyn Peake, the Gormenghast Diptych, and Titus Alone
15. The Geography of Earthsea
16. Roger Zelazny, Mythopoeic in the High Desert
17. A Game of You - Yes, You

Part 4: Squiggles
18. The Fellowship of the Ring: A Review, 1954
19. The Condensed Silmarillion
20. The Case Against Peter Jackson
21. Yes, There Is Religion in Middle-earth
22. Paul Edwin Zimmer, Swordsman and Poet
23. The Making of a Tolkien Fan: A Personal Reminiscence

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

recipe rules

Brithistorian has posted some Laws of Following Recipes:
  • 1. Before you start cooking, read the entire recipe. Be sure you have all the ingredients and all the equipment and that you understand everything the recipe is asking you to do.
  • 2. If the recipe writer goes to the trouble of specifying a brand name or other adjective for any particular ingredient, they probably have a good reason for it. Either follow their instruction or, if you're going to make a substitution, be damn sure you understand why they made the choice they did so you can make an intelligent substitution.
I'll go along with these, with some caveats and additions.

1a. After following Law 1, begin the cooking process (i.e. after marinating and other pre-cooking activities) by laying out everything you're going to need on the counter. This is easy for ingredients, which are listed in the recipe, somewhat more difficult for utensils and cookware. You're guaranteed to forget something and have to dig it out later.

1b. If the recipe includes a step where you add a whole bunch of different herbs and/or spices at once, put them all in a small bowl together first. This will save frantically measuring and scooping numerous items while the dish is (over)cooking.

2a. Caveat: Cooking recipes (skillet dishes, casseroles) are forgiving. Measurements can be approximate - yeah, that looks like about a tablespoon of butter - and substitutions are easy. Not as wacky as chopped jalapeños for relish, but certainly on the level of vegetables. If you don't like mushrooms, don't put any in! Even if the recipe is for stroganoff or marsala. Only occasionally does this go off the rails. I ate at a Chinese restaurant once that offered Mongolian pork, and I discovered why this dish is usually made with beef. On the other hand, I've had Mongolian shrimp and liked it.

2b. But! Baking recipes (cookies, cake) need to be followed precisely - measure everything exactly, and no substitutes or changes - or disaster will follow. Cooks like me who like to wing it need to revert to severe conventionality in this repertoire.

2c. Quiche is a good example of how laws 2a and 2b intersect. Go ahead and tinker lightly with the filling as long as the quantity remains the same; but be exact with the eggs and cheese.

Monday, July 24, 2023

minds at work

I read two online political cartoonists. Both publish weekly. This week, Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling tackle the same issue.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Music@Menlo, week one

It's the first week of the local chamber music festival, and I've been keeping moderately busy there. I reviewed the first mainstage concert, which was the Baroque installment in a six-concert history of chamber music. This was more successful than the miscellaneous-looking listing in the program book promised. A crisp concerto for four violins and no accompaniment by Telemann and a soprano solemnly hooting her way through Handel arias delighted me most. I'll be back for reviewing more in this series later.

I'll also get to hear a few more of the short prelude concerts, of which this week I only went to the one before the mainstage event. It featured the return of the Dohanyi Piano Quintet No. 1, a piece Menlo puts on, usually in this spot, frequently. Sometimes it's dynamite and sometimes just OK. This one was just OK. The Beethoven C-minor piano trio also gets played fairly often; this was better than usual, mostly due to the pianist's ability to make a modern grand sound like a circa 1800 fortepiano.

Saturday was the first of the three weekly Young Performers concerts. A couple dozen kids, mostly late teens but ranging down (the youngest this year is 11, which is high by past years' standards) are chosen each year, sorted into groups each week and assigned to play a movement or two of an appropriate work, and they always do an amazingly professional job. I'd been looking forward to hearing Schumann's Piano Quintet divided between two groups, but one of them lost their pianist and were reassigned to a Haydn quartet instead, which they did very well; the others dropped the scherzo and just played the finale. This was not only technically admirable but really caught the vitality of the work. This impressed me all the more, as last Tuesday I heard them play the scherzo in a master class with one of the senior violinists, and while they had all the notes I thought they lacked some oomph. So evidently they really progressed in the intervening week, and after the concert I caught their cellist and paid her my compliments.

I've also been to three talks, all of them focused on the other concert series, a survey of the Beethoven quartets, none of which actual concerts I'm going to. They're in the small hall so they quickly sold out, and I haven't been asked to review any of them. But the topic interests me, and I couldn't miss talks by Jan Swafford and Aaron Boyd, who are both terrific lecturers. Swafford, who is a music historian and biographer, talked on Beethoven's compositional procedures, most relevantly postulating that in his early Op. 18 quartets Beethoven was not ready to challenge Haydn on his own turf so he took a relatively modest approach, but six years later in Op. 59 he was prepared to go full Beethoven on him. I fancy not all scholars would agree with this interpretation. But Swafford spent most of his time analyzing the "Eroica" Symphony, which is not on the program at a chamber music festival, but at least he was the first person I've encountered to have an answer to a question which seems to have puzzled most commentators: if the symphony is a portrait of a hero (initially Napoleon, until his crowning as Emperor disillusioned Beethoven about him), why is the second movement his funeral march? Swafford's answer is that the first movement portrays a battle, and the funeral march is the one after the battle, not the hero's personal funeral. That makes the scherzo the return to cheerfulness that occurs after mourning.

Boyd, one of Menlo's senior violinists, gave an elegant overview of the classical Viennese quartets, rather implying that greatness in chamber music composition ended after that, and then introduced us to the characteristic styles of several mid-20C quartet ensembles, rather implying that greatness in performing ended after them. He didn't mean that literally in either case, but the impression came across because Boyd is an unapologetic elitist in art, a rather bold position to take nowadays. He criticized the premise of "historically informed performances" in exactly the same terms that the late Richard Taruskin used to, and he issued a regret at recent decreases in attention span and its impact on classical music, though he had to modify that in the light of all the excellent youngsters Menlo is able to find every year.

I thought of my own first encounter. I craved music as a child, but though I enjoyed some popular stuff - not the pop songs of the day, which were mostly crap (the good ones have survived), but things like my parents' musical theater records - it didn't really satisfy me. Stumbling across some of the big heavy classics opened up a world of music I hadn't known about, and they had the heft - the weight and size - that satisfied my cravings and has ever since.

The third talk was by the Calidore Quartet, the ensemble (and a really terrific one: I've heard them before) who are performing the Beethoven cycle. They told how the pandemic gave them the opportunity to work on the entire cycle. Like other quartet ensembles I've heard talk, they consider the Beethoven quartets to be the greatest music ever by the greatest composer ever, so there's no reason not to invest the time.

Menlo isn't entirely retro in its repertoire - the last concert in the mainstage program is entirely living composers, and its historical material goes into some odd corners like the Dohnanyi - but its focus is definitely on the traditionally great.

Friday, July 21, 2023


I escaped from the expected 94F temperatures this afternoon by sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater and watching a film about an explosion at some 50 million F. It was, of course, Oppenheimer which opened today, and despite my intense interest in the subject I found it a less enticing three hours than Mission Impossible.

Especially the early part. I've never enjoyed wide-spanning bio-pics, which jump from this significant scene to that significant scene, and this started out as one of them. Eventually, once we get to the Manhattan Project, the story begins to cohere, but it's less about the bomb than it is about security issues. The bomb finally gets a look-in with a long sequence about the Trinity test, and after that it goes back to security issues, focusing on the two things that have framed flashbacks all along, Oppenheimer's 1954 security hearing and Lewis Strauss's 1959 Senate committee hearing for his cabinet nomination. And these move along quite briskly, thus making a movie that gets significantly less boring over time, a rare phenomenon.

This is, however, a Christopher Nolan Auditorily Obnoxious Special. Except when making a speech or giving testimony, Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) mumbles to show how diffident he is. Only about half of what he says is audible. Meanwhile Nolan blasts you with the subwoofers any excuse he can, from the sound of nuclear bombs exploding to the sounds of an applauding audience stomping its feet on stadium bleachers. They're equally loud.

I knew that the movie co-stars Matt Damon, a rather more genial General Groves than descriptions of the original, and Robert Downey Jr. as the malevolent (from an Oppenheimer pov) Strauss, and I knew of some of the more cameo appearances, from Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr to Gary Oldman doing one scene as President Truman. But nobody had told me that one of the senators at the Strauss hearing was Harry Groener, whom old Buffy fans will remember.

At one point in the movie, Groves says he's appointing Oppenheimer as "project director," and that may be the reason behind the frequent appearance in articles about the movie of false statements that Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project, leaving Groves - who was the actual director of the Manhattan Project - as the military liaison or some other side character. No, no. The Manhattan Engineering District, which was the official name, was so titled to classify it as a unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, though it operated directly under the authority of the Chief of Staff. It was a military operation, and Groves, an experienced Army engineer, was its commander.

This included a vast array of operations - the huge uranium and plutonium processing plants in Tennessee and Washington state, uranium mining sites and procurement offices, labs for radiation and chemical and metallurgical research in Chicago and at Iowa State and elsewhere, intelligence operations, and much more. That's what Groves was in charge of. Oppenheimer had nothing to do with those. Under Groves as his superior, he was director of the Los Alamos laboratory, which was one small unit of the project, charged with designing, manufacturing, and testing the bomb. Clear?

Thursday, July 20, 2023

it spells "Tolkien"

I guess I can pass this info on. The rumor is true: an expanded edition of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien will be published later this year. This collection of Tolkien's correspondence with his children, his publishers, his readers, and others has been a vital source for information on his thought and intent since it was first published in 1981, and even more so after it finally got an adequate index some twenty years later, compiled by the indispensable Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.

The new edition will contain material cut from the original to fit the book down to the size the publishers wanted. I can't wait to see what they had left out.

And it will have a good index.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

it's the movie that's impossible

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One

Oh ghod, I'm not going to go into my history with this series, but the results are that I didn't like #1-3 but was increasingly pleased with #4-6. The Kashmir sequence at the end of Fallout, #6, is to my mind the ideal movie action run.

So what will they do for an encore? (This is #7.) The answer is, having reached the top, they've now gone over the top and down the other side. It has its virtues: despite its length it's never boring, nor is it frantic and tedious like an Indiana Jones, and they've figured out how to combine an emotionally satisfying conclusion with an open-ended continuation for the next movie.

But it doesn't have the charm and appeal of Fallout or its predecessors, and the problem is not just the uncontrollably gargantuan plot and the literally bloodless villain, but what they've done to the characters. Too many of Tom Cruise's stunts are not breathtaking action scenes, or funny as many of them used to be (the Russian prison breakout? the sticky gloves failing as Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa?) but just getting pummeled for the sake of getting pummeled. And the rest of the IMF has it worse. In the previous movies they were a real team. A large part of what makes the Kashmir sequence in Fallout is that everyone's important. Tom Cruise's heroics would mean nothing without what Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, and Simon Pegg are doing, even as what they're doing would mean nothing without him. But here? Rhames and Pegg have become disposable secondary sidekicks, and Pegg's frantic episodes have changed from a characteristic into a gimmick. Ferguson's character has tossed away the hard-won status she achieved at the end of the previous movie, and then she's thrown aside in favor of a younger and prettier brunette. The other returning actor is Vanessa Kirby, who used to be a sly amoral operator and is now a kind of absurd comic relief. There isn't even any mention of Michelle Monaghan's character, did you notice that? She used to be the reason for Cruise's character's existence, even as Rhames and Pegg were his inseparable buddies. Now all of that hint of depth in the characterization is gone. When Cruise tells Hayley Atwell, the new brunette, that her life will mean more to him than his own, it doesn't carry any believability because it isn't based on anything.

I want to forget about this movie and deem it uncanonical.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Charles E. Noad

One of my oldest friends, and the longest-lasting of my British friends, has passed on. Charles was a mainstay of the Tolkien Society, the UK-based organization, and an absolute monument for Tolkien studies for all that he didn't write very much. Besides doing bibliographical work for the TS, his most valuable contribution was as proofreader for most of the posthumous Tolkien volumes, in the History of Middle-earth series and elsewhere. At this his ability to catch glitches was unsurpassed. He could quite literally tell whether a period (the full stop at the end of a sentence) was in italics or not. As a support to Christopher Tolkien, the editor of these volumes, he was more than invaluable.

One piece he did write was an essay "On the Construction of the Silmarillion," which appeared in the festschrift for CT, Tolkien's Legendarium, ed. Flieger & Hostetter. It was a fascinating and well-researched and -argued speculation on what Tolkien would likely have put in The Silmarillion had he ever finished it: a more heterogeneous volume than the one actually published under that title. It immediately preceded my own contribution, and I was pleased to be adjacent to the other contributor whom, at the time, I knew the best.

Charles and I had met on my first trip to Britain, in 1979. That's 44 years ago now: amazing. We had some long talks, at first in a corner of the hotel of the World Science Fiction Convention, and later in London, at pubs and in his flat, which I got to visit for the only time. Even then it was packed with books; what it must have been like 44 years later - he was still at the same place in west London - I can't imagine.

We worked out a treaty, similar to ones he made with several other American Tolkienists in those days when international purchases were difficult to make unaided. He would purchase my annual membership in the Tolkien Society, and I would work off the balance by buying and shipping to him American publications that he wanted: not just Tolkien ones; he had a deep interest in the history of the space program and would seek out rare books and magazines in that area. That interested me also so we'd talk about that too.

He also provided other things to me: one project he undertook during my first visit was to make me photocopies of all of Tolkien's fugitive early published poetry. I still keep those in my files, with his carefully penned bibliographic citations on the backs.

Charles looked dignified, with a neatly trimmed beard, and he was very soft-spoken. It was best to meet with him in a quiet place. One quiet place we sometimes met was the back room where the Inklings met of the Bird and Baby, their pub in Oxford, the first beeline if we were meeting in the town for some event. John Rateliff writes that Charles was the only person he ever bought a beer for, and the same might be true for me.

On some of my last trips to England, just before the pandemic, he organized meetings for me with himself and a few friends at Penderel's Oak, the central London pub where the local Tolkien group often met. I arrived at the first with a padded envelope filled with half a dozen copies of the Newsweek special issue on Tolkien, which I'd picked up at my local grocer's: one for Charles, the rest for him to distribute to other British TS members who might be interested.

The son of a friend came round to take Charles to a hospital visit on Thursday, but found him deceased. Heart attack, probably: Charles had been having heart trouble recently. That's all I know: I'm sure details will be forthcoming, probably on the TS website. A great loss, a great loss.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

saved by the

A few weeks ago an old crown on one of my teeth broke, and when I went in to the dentist I reported on an episode of extreme temperature sensitivity I'd had on the other side of my mouth for a couple of days. The dentist poked around over there and thought I'd need a root canal job. I was given a referral to an endodontist who, I only found out by accident later, had moved to a different office than the one listed on the referral. (The phone number was the same, and they didn't mention the move when I phoned.)

I made the appointment for after the new permanent crown would be secured and in use for a bit, because not being able to chew on both sides of my mouth at the same time is beyond my skill set. Fortunately the temperature sensitivity didn't recur. Unfortunately, the endodontist's new office is right by where I had my auto accident a few years ago, a spot I'd been trying to avoid ever since.

So it was this morning that I went in. The good news is that the endodontist ran some more detailed tests on my tooth sensitivity, and reported that I didn't need a root canal job after all, at least for now. However, I did have to pay for the exam.

Monday, July 10, 2023

there to meet with the Scottish play

Our four-person play reading group has returned to Shakespeare to do Macbeth because one of our number was thirsting to read the title role. That's OK: I'm waiting for us to get back to the history play cycle because next up is the role I want, Richard III. Villains are the best. (My first ever Shakespeare reading experience was as Cassius.)

We read the first half, up through the assassination of Banquo. Even half of this play seems to be more full of immortal lines than any other Shakespeare except Hamlet. It has such lines as:
Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it*
*Bet you don't remember that's from Macbeth! Without checking, now: who is it referring to, and who says it?

The milk of human kindness

The be-all and the end-all

Screw your courage to the sticking-place

Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care

In the catalogue ye go for men

We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it
Plenty more coming in half two.

And there's Mackers' famous speeches, which in this half include the ones that begin "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly" and "Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?"

There's the famous book and movie titles, like Steinbeck (The Moon Is Down), Fritz Leiber (Night's Black Agents), and Star Trek ("Dagger of the Mind"). Our mystery-reader noted that there are a lot of mystery titles also.

And of course one shouldn't forget the old New York Magazine contest which asked readers to create a quotidian piece of literature like a weather report in the style of a famous author, and one brilliant submission was a Shakespearean weather report:

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Debby Jones

I want to mark the passing of another figure from my corner of the fannish universe. Debby was from St. Paul, MN, and in fandom was primarily a costumer. She participated in CostumeCon and ran the costume presentation at her local convention, Minicon. I knew her because she occasionally showed up at Mythcon, usually in costume collaboration with her friend Ellie Farrell, a more regular Mythcon figure and a Bay Area resident. When Mythcon came to the Twin Cities in 1993, Debby ran costumes there too.

But Debby most deserves to be remembered in Mythcon circles as the co-founder of the Not-Ready-for-Mythcon-Players. Ellie told the story ...
The 1987 Mythopoeic Conference at Marquette University in Milwaukee was honored to have not only Christopher Tolkien but also John Bellairs as Guests of Honor. A fantasist whose delightful wit is mostly known from a series of young adult novels, Bellairs had also written a couple of bizarrely hilarious but hard-to-find pieces, such as St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies and The Pedant and the Shuffly. Debby Jones and I decided to stage a condensed version of the latter as a masquerade entry, to introduce the story to more people. In this tale, an unpleasant wizard (the Pedant) changes people he doesn't like into creatures called "Flimsies" -- which look like dinner napkins soiled with gravy and cranberry sauce. Not having such condiments available in the Marquette cafeteria, we covered Eric Rauscher and Sherwood Smith with sheets coated with chocolate sauce and cherry jam, and put on our little play. Bellairs professed himself charmed, and gave me his permission to distribute xerox copies of his story.
Which the Mythopoeic Press later re-published. I'd been the narrator who read Ellie and Debby's summary of The Pedant and the Shuffly aloud as they and Eric and Sherwood enacted it on stage. This little sketch gave rise to a tradition of a skit guying the works of the Guest of Honor at each Mythcon, and I still read the narrations.

Anyway, so that little Bellairs presentation is a particularly fond memory. Debby died Saturday evening after a long battle with brain cancer.

Deborah Katherine (Vleck) Jones, 1948-2023

Thursday, July 6, 2023


Well, it turns out that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been playing games with its members in terms of the information they gave. Today I received an announcement, signed by the chair of the board, that a new artistic director will be taking office in September. So what happened to the old artistic director? Not a word about her departure. Turns out, I find from searching theater news articles, that she resigned two months ago, taking effect before the summer season started. Again, not a word about this came in e-mails from OSF, even as they were sending fund-raising e-mails and announcements about the new season, and an introductory e-mail from another officer who had just joined; and the playbills for the shows we attended last week - even the ones that didn't open until after the resignation took effect - still had a greeting note from the artistic director they didn't say had resigned.

I feel rather scrod over by this.

And why did she resign? Apparently because of the death threats she'd been receiving from those unreasonably upset at her moves to make the festival more diverse. I'd known about the threats a while ago - but again from news sources, not from the festival, which said nothing more than they'd expanded their security staff, they didn't say why.

And the new artistic director? His name is Tim Bond, and he worked for OSF in the '90s and '00s. He's Black, like his predecessor, so I don't expect much change in direction. I had to scour the production history to find out what he'd directed when he was here before. That was a period I wasn't attending OSF very often, and don't have any records of what I saw. Mostly he directed plays of Black interest which I probably didn't see, though he also directed an outdoor theater production of Twelfth Night which I probably didn't see either. Probably next season will have to be chosen by the interim staff before he takes office, so there may be a transition period.

But I really don't like having been kept uninformed like this, and thus writing a review of the season's plays in ignorance that the artistic director I was crediting for it had already both resigned and left.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023


The most-recurring topic of conversation at Tuesday's Independence Day/anniversary party was the new Indiana Jones movie, in which I have no interest, having found the first movie terminally dull and not having seen any of its successors, none of which claimed to surpass it anyway. One said he'd name Raiders as his favorite action movie: defining that category narrowly (i.e. not just a movie with action in it), I'd name the latest Mission Impossible movie, which I thought did a fabulous job with the action. It's about to be succeeded by a later one, so we'll see how that does.

Aside from the plays, about which I already wrote, the trip to Ashland for the Shakespeare Festival was mostly uneventful. Temperatures were in the 90s, but not too broiling, and the power didn't go out as it did one broiling June a few years back. The exciting part was on the freeway coming up seeing an electronic sign display saying that the freeway was closed some miles ahead. Listening to the emergency radio service (which is AM: what happens when that option disappears from cars?) and inquiries to the service workers when we stopped at a rest area revealed that a tanker with liquid nitrogen had overturned and blocked all the lanes.

I'd stopped to look at the AAA area map I'd brought along just in case something like this happened. Fortunately it was in an area where alternative roads were plenty. I turned off the freeway when the congestion started to hit and threaded my way through suburbs and countryside for a few miles until I was sure I was past the affected zone. Timing was tight because we had a later-than-desirable start and a dinner reservation at our favorite local restaurant, but we made it without trouble.

Someone dented our parked car in the theater garage, and was kind enough to leave a note. So I've had to go through the business of phoning them, getting the information, then dealing with the insurance company and the body shop, far more work than, in my opinion, a small dent is worth. To me a car is a machine to get you places, and as long as it's working right, who cares if there's a small dent? But the world doesn't like that attitude, and I'm expected to go through all this rigamarole.

Thing learned this year: the online list of closed rest areas that's good on Wednesday will be entirely obsolete by Saturday when you come back, so best look it up again.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

unlucky Jim

This will only be funny if you've read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, but I thought it plenty amusing. It's from a novel called The Runes Have Been Cast by Robert Irwin, which I was reading for my "Inklings in fiction" bibliography: Tolkien makes a cameo appearance, and other Inklings are mentioned.

Anyway, this is a conversation between an English and a History don - shouldn't be hard to figure which is which - at a provincial university in the UK, circa 1962.
Quentin pointed to a novel that was in Jaimie's other hand. It was called Lucky Jim and it was by a man called Kingsley Amis.
'What did you make of it?' asked Quentin. 'I read it a few weeks ago and I was quite shocked by it.'
'I am only halfway through it and so far I haven't been shocked by anything in it. What is so shocking?'
'No, I suppose not shocking, just terribly sad and the title so misleading. It is called Lucky Jim but perhaps that is intended to be ironic, for the Jim character had started work on what might well have been a brilliant thesis. Let me see ...' He started riffling the pages. 'Yes, here it is, The Economic Influence of the Development of Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. Most promising, and surely a brilliant academic career awaited this Jim, but then the young fool throws it all up. I can see that there are jokes in the book, but the underlying story is really quite tragic. A most promising future thrown over for a woman. It is, like so many novels, something written by a smart Alec who has no respect for academic goals or civilised values.'
Jaimie was looking at Quentin with incredulity. It was as if he had blundered into a conversation with a Martian. But Quentin did not notice and continued, 'The late fifteenth century was an exciting time for shipbuilders. More contacts were developing between mediterranean and northern designers and carpenters. Also open sea navigation was becoming more normal. Maritime trade had expanded considerably and with it the tonnage of the ships, but at the same time shortage of labour enforced certain constraints on the dockyards. By the end of the fifteenth century the rig of a ship proclaimed that its master craftsmen no longer owed anything to the Middle Ages. Jim's chosen period is the age of the gun-carrying ship, a presage of modernity. It is a thrilling subject and this Jim throws it all away for some pints of beer and a few fucks. By the end he is a ruined man - but, I'm sorry, I should not have given the ending away.'
'Not at all," Jaimie was polite. 'You have put the novel in an interesting perspective.'

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Shakespeare and not-Shakespeare

What with pandemics and all, this was the first year that the new(ish) artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has really put her imprint on the productions. Her name is Nataki Garrett, and she's a Black woman from Oakland. She's not the first woman to hold the post, but she is the first Black, and she's putting an urban American Black sensibility on the shows.

Which is fine. I'm not one of those alte kochers who whine about the good old days. In fact, when I heard that some were thus whining, I wrote her a letter saying, roughly, "Ignore them. You do what you do." And I hold by that. What's my business is whether I personally like the results or not. And on the basis of four plays over the last two days, the verdict is ... decidedly mixed.

OSF has been shining for some years now at stage musicals. This year they did Rent. An excellent choice for the current theme - a dozen artistic types of various backgrounds and ethnicities living in a rathole community building in NYC in the 1980s, amid AIDS and drug addiction. (Reminded me of the Ghost Ship in Oakland, and I worried about the building catching on fire.) It was a straightforward production with minimal sets. Everybody acted and sang with tremendous gusto, and it was magnificently done. The only odd point was that the actor playing the leading character of Mark was Black, which dilutes some of the racial tension from the story. It was all new to me - the only song from it I knew was "Seasons of Love" (which I knew only as 'that song whose lyrics begin with a long number') - and due to acoustical congestion from the accompanying band it was hard to make out what anybody was singing (there's very little spoken dialog). I only knew what was going on from having B. explain it all to me beforehand. But thus equipped, I enjoyed it immensely.

But that made Romeo and Juliet redundant and superfluous, even though we saw that first. Garrett directed this, and set it in a 2020s version of the same thing: roughly-housed, homeless, and mentally ill people in contemporary Oakland. The setting had nothing to say that Rent didn't already say better. And, like most overly creative Shakespeare re-settings, it didn't fit well with the play. The specifics of the production didn't help. R&J is an overlong, talkative play, and it wasn't cut nearly enough. Some lines were altered to cope with anachronisms, but just as many weren't, and the problem of Friar Laurence's message to Romeo not getting through in a universe with smartphones in it was not addressed. The cast performed with sincerity and the leads spoke their lines well, but they were fighting against the production and it just mostly didn't work, exceptions noted below. If you want to set a classic work in a raw contemporary setting, it's best to toss the text and put the theme and plot in a new work. Like turning La Bohème into Rent. Or, for that matter, turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story.

But it still has to be adapted well, and lack of that is what sank the new adaptation of The Three Musketeers. Dumas was quarter-Black, right? So why not make a Black version of his most famous novel? It was a good notion, but the execution was disastrous. It started with a cat (Jamyl Dobson) who claimed to be Dumas, but didn't look or behave anything like a simulacrum of the real thing, rapping out an introduction in a manner suggesting he'd seen Hamilton too many times. The storyline was presented faithfully to the book in the original setting, but the dialog was written down in a way implying that to be Black means to be a downmarket media caricature of 2020s American urban Blacks. Everybody calls each other muthafuggas all the time (and this in a show marketed to children!), and it just sucked the big one. It was so bad, we walked out before intermission.

It didn't have to be like this, and interestingly R&J, problematic as it was, showed a better method. Newcomer Jada Alston Owens, the best actor in the cast, gave a serious modern Black ethnic accent to Juliet's most famous lines, which worked strikingly well, and Mercutio (understudy Amelio Garcia) rapped out the Queen Mab speech to a found-percussion beat, which was brilliant. But the words were Shakespeare's.

The last item on our bill was another Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, and this worked better because the adaptation was applied with a lighter touch. It was filled with early 20th century popular music of a variety of genres, but this didn't turn it into a musical like OSF's last Merry Wives. Feste sang in the adopted styles, but Feste is supposed to sing, and the music was otherwise restricted to snatches at scene-changes. It added liveliness to what was mostly a pretty dull performance, apart from Jaysen Wright as an unusually energetic Sebastian, and Al Espinosa (who was Orsino in the last production of this we saw) absolutely brilliant as a Malvolio of toweringly regal self-regard, which he kept up even in the scenes of the character's degradation.

One A, one B-, one D, and one F; last year was an A and a D. That's not a very good GPA. I've given up on OSF before when it entered slack periods, and we'll be giving thought about whether to go next year at all.