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.