Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin

I shall have to find a new favorite living writer. The long-time occupant of that post has vacated it. Ursula K. Le Guin is dead at 88.

Le Guin's works, and occasionally her person, have been part of my life for most of it now. I must have seen original hardcover editions of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan on bookshelves somewhere, because, although I did not read the books at that time, I thought that any writer who could draw maps like those had seen within my soul.

I read the books, and their sequel The Farthest Shore, when they came out in paperback a few years later, and found that the stories matched the maps in piercing meaningfulness, as well as being fantasy with a moral center to it that thereby reminded me of Tolkien far more than his more obvious imitators did.

Here, and in other works to come, I found that Le Guin would take me to places so valuable and insightful that I would follow her anywhere she wished to go.

I want to say everything about it. Nothing at this point seems adequate. A defense or explication of her work seems inappropriate right now, an account of personal interactions trivial. Before her eloquence I bow in silence.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oscar the grouch

Correlating the Oscar nominees with my movie-going reveals a pattern. I've seen 3 of the nominees in the theater, and they were all modern-setting historical dramas based on real-life events about famous people, a currently popular type of movie I have a weakness for. I think they're the only movies I've gone out to see in the last several months.

They were The Post (Best Picture and Best Leading Actress, which it deserved), Darkest Hour (Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, and a bunch of production categories, which it also deserved), and Marshall (Best Original Song: I don't remember it even having a song).

But I also saw one other nominee, and that not in a theater: Mudbound, which I streamed via Netflix on the very computer on which I'm now typing. Mudbound is a kind of story that normally doesn't interest me, about people doing stupid and insensitive things and then getting hit on the side of the head with a clue-by-four, but I'd read that it was well-regarded, so here's the thing: watching it on Netflix is like waiting for the DVD. You can watch it at home, you don't have to spend movie-ticket prices, and above all, if you don't like it you can turn it off without disturbing other people as you leave the theater or feel as if you wasted your time and money going there.

And it was good: I watched the whole thing with captivation, which is far more than I can say for any of the online original TV series I've tried to watch lately.

But it was fear that I'd be trapped in a theater with something I wouldn't like that kept me away from a number of other movies. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for instance: it's an intriguing premise and the cast is outstanding; but it was written and directed by the same guy who made In Bruges, a movie with an intriguing premise and a good cast but which made for one of the more tedious afternoons I've spent in a moviehouse.

I just don't want to risk going through that again, so I'll wait for the DVDs on Ebbing, and Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and All the Money in the World and I, Tonya, and Roman J. Israel, Esq., all of which I also thought about going to see but didn't.

Two Best Picture nominees I won't watch under any premise: Dunkirk - I don't do big-battle war movies, I just don't - and Get Out - I don't do horror movies, I just don't.

So how were the ones I did see? I liked all of them.

I didn't already know the specific story in Marshall, but I was struck - though nothing I've read about the movie has mentioned this - by the similarity of the case Marshall tries to the one in To Kill a Mockingbird (a book not yet written when this takes place). The premise is close to identical, and I'm surprised how, even today, the race-relations side of the story entirely drowns out the sex-relations side.

The Post is impressively historically accurate. Various writers for the New York Times have grumbled about it leaving out the Times more important role in the Pentagon Papers publication, but the movie's opening is misleading: this isn't about the Papers themselves. Due to the course of events, the Post faced a thornier dilemma of journalistic ethics - the Times had already been legally enjoined from publishing; should the Post defy the spirit of the order and go ahead? - and that's the center of the story. The scene where a flustered Graham tells the editors to go ahead is straight out of her memoirs, though it omits the reason for her decision: the paper's lawyer had said he wouldn't do it, but she noticed he provided no justification (the possibility of prosecution, the threat to the stock price), leaving her, she felt, the freedom to go the other way.

As for Darkest Hour, what's the opposite of "pitch-perfect"? "Pitch-imperfect"? This movie is meticulously made in all its physical detail, but the script is continuously slightly off, and sometimes not-so-slightly. The need to paint Churchill as a hero and therefore Halifax (and Chamberlain) as villains infects everything. They were all of them flawed but honorable men doing the best they could, and an honest movie like The Post would reflect that.

Monday, January 22, 2018

English suites no. 20

Here's something a bit different. Percy Grainger was an Australian pianist who came to England and went folk-song collecting (as did Holst and Vaughan Williams). He arranged some of his findings into A Lincolnshire Posy suite for concert band.

But this is not the original suite. This is a full-scale arrangement of that played by the English electric folk group Home Service. An unusual thing to find on a popular music album, but there it is. Appropriately, Home Service included brass players among its members, so there is some overlap in sound. Home Service also had vocalists, so you'll hear two of the selections, nos. 2-3, "Horkstow Grange" (the song the name Steeleye Span comes from) and "Rufford Park Poachers," sung as well as played.

The songs are: Lisbon (Dublin Bay) (0:00), Horkstow Grange (1:21), Rufford Park Poachers (3:58), The Brisk Young Sailor (6:22), Lord Melbourne (The Duke of Marlboro) (7:54), and The Lost Lady Found (10:49).

This is the last of my strictly English suites that I've been offering occasionally, but wait, there's more ...

Sunday, January 21, 2018

busy and crowded day

I attended last year's local edition of the Women's March, so I saw no reason not to attend this year's as well. B. was also physically up to attending, and signed up as a volunteer. She was stationed in the park at the end of the march, where she spent most of her time trying to keep the crowds from trampling through the bushes (where the grapes of wrath are stored, no doubt).

Whether this year's march was bigger than last year's was hard to tell from ground level, though I think it was. There were certainly more pussy hats, given more time to knit them. Many of the same signs made a re-appearance. Of the new signs, I most liked the puns:

(another sign read WE ARE NOT OVARY-ACTING. What's the message here?)

There were also a strange number of misspellings that don't seem to have been intended as puns:

However, despite the need for remedial English, the march was better organized than last year. It commenced on time, instead of an hour late (possibly because it adopted the clever technique of designating last year's actual starting time as this year's intended starting time), and took a different, rather longer path to a much larger park, where long lines of port-a-potties, informational booths, and a few food trucks awaited. Last year's speakers were mostly local politicians who bloviated; this year's were more community organizers who burbled. After a bit I started hobbling slowly back towards the starting area, where we'd parked and where I could rest up for a bit in the city library.

After reuniting by cell phone and via car with B. and her fellow-volunteer friend to whom we'd given a ride, whom I hadn't seen for 6 hours since the organizers whisked them away at the staging area two hours before starting time, we drove back and then I left again for a conveniently-scheduled birthday party for my 3-year-old nephew.

The kids played in one room under the eyes of their mothers while I sat in another, which my sister-in-law had festively decorated with balloons and letter-shaped cookies (the latter spelling out the boy's name), listening to a group of men my brother's age have a wide-ranging conversation touching on military service, computer programming, sports, and other topics I know nothing about, culminating with them mock-bragging to each other about how little Tagalog they know, underlining that what they and my brother have in common is that they're all white guys who've married Filipina women. That's the social group here. I and our only local cousin, with whom I had a more productive conversation, were the odd ones out.

But I had to leave early from that too, to get back closer to home for a concert. Chamber Music Silicon Valley, a small but scrappy local group, was putting on a mini-marathon concert, what they boldly hope will be the first annual rendition, of all six Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach.

I've heard such a program before, under the sedate gaze of the Carmel Bach Festival. This one was livelier.The Brandenburgs may be played as chamber pieces, but the varied instrumentations mean you still have to gather a lot of players, so putting this together was a big job. One important role went unfilled, alas, and the clarino trumpet part in No. 2 was played by one of the French horns recruited for No. 1. May I say that this substitution did not work.

Other than that, though, from the dissonant village-band style of the massive No. 1 through the parts in Nos. 4 and 5 where the ensemble coordination threatened to, and in one place actually did, come totally unstuck, it was fun and a bit edgy. The six were played in the order 6, 3, 4, 1, 5, 2, which connoisseurs will observe is approximately the order of increasing instrumental color. It was a good show, even at the end of a tiring day.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Candide in concert

As part of the celebration of Leonard Bernstein's centenary, MTT led the San Francisco Symphony in a semi-staged concert performance of LB's musical comedy Candide which I attended last night. The principal singers were stationed on a raised platform behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus (who were higher still).

The first problem any production of Candide faces is which version to use. It was not a success on its first production in 1956, and has been reworked any number of times, not always very satisfactorily. This version, which was created for Scottish Opera in 1989 and approved by the composer, seems to work pretty well. It dumps the spoken book entirely in favor of quick linking plot-summary passages delivered by a narrator (who also plays Pangloss), thus leaving room to stuff in as many songs as possible in a running time of two hours (plus intermission). It's still, the program notes said, only about 40% of the music written for the show at one point or another. But it's astonishing how many truly great songs passed across the stage in the course of the evening: "Best of All Possible Worlds," "Oh Happy We", "Auto-da-fe", "Glitter and Be Gay", "I Am Easily Assimilated", "My Love", "The Kings' Barcarolle", and my favorite, "What's the Use?" In fact, the only great Candide song omitted from this version was "Dear Boy".

This version is closely related, though not identical, to the one that Marin Alsop conducted on Great Performances in 2004 (which did manage to squeeze in "Dear Boy"), and I'm just sorry to say how much better that performance was than this one's. Not in talent of the performers, but in appropriateness of style. Last night's production was approached as if Candide were a serious opera. But it's not: it's a light musical comedy. MTT led with slow and stately tempos, lacking in sprightliness. And the principals were opera singers, bringing gorgeous voices with big rounded sound - and leaving most of the lyrics unintelligible. The only good comic singing came with Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde maniacally chortling over her jewels in "Glitter and Be Gay". Picerno, who does have a hefty list of musical theater leads in her vita along with the opera roles, deserves a runner-up slot in the Kristin Chenoweth competition.

For some music, including much of the music I love best, big rounded gorgeous sound is appropriate. But it's not Candide, it's not Bernstein, who melded classical technique and sophistication with the spirit of a Broadway stage composer steeped in greasepaint in all of his music, even for the concert hall. Music is not just music: it has varied kinds of excellences, and I look for awareness and appreciation of that. Still, I enjoyed this: in the right version, it's a terrific show.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

inside Edmund Wilson

Deducing what actually seems to have been going on in the mind of the author of the famous review trashing The Lord of the Rings: my latest Tolkien Society blog post.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Retro Hugos for 1942

This year's Worldcon, of which perforce I am a member, is giving out the Retro-Hugos 1943 (works of 1942). So it's time to resurrect something I've done for Retros before, though not since before I started this blog, which is to survey the eligible works of my favorite old-time authors: the three major Inklings, plus Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake.

Well, Tolkien and Peake may be discarded forthwith, as neither published anything in that fraught wartime year. Charles Williams had a theological treatise, The Forgiveness of Sins, a few theological articles, and a lot of book reviews, but those aren't much help. That leaves C.S. Lewis and Dunsany.

Lewis, by contrast, had a very big year. He published two eligible books. A Preface to Paradise Lost is a set of scholarly lectures which would easily qualify for Best Related Work; I leave it to any Miltonians reading this as to how worthwhile it is, as I've never tried reading the Lewis book myself. (I have tried reading Paradise Lost, but let's leave it at that.)

The other is The Screwtape Letters, one of Lewis's most famous books. It's a little hard to say what kind of book this is. At its core it's a set of Christian moral lessons, and the Library of Congress classifies it as such, but it's clothed in a fictional framework of such piquancy as to have made the book's reputation. It's in the form of the letters of advice sent by a senior devil, the Screwtape of the title, to a junior tempter who's sitting on the mental shoulder of a nondescript young man living in wartime England. (We never learn the man's name or much about his life: this doesn't interest Screwtape, whose only interest is in acquiring the man's soul.)

The idea, of course, is to goose readers into accepting Christian moral lessons by presenting them from the perspective of someone trying to undercut them. Screwtape is a suave but nasty bureaucrat, as Lewis felt it was in those haunts, and not in Dantean dens of iniquity, that the true evil of his time was taking place - e.g., though he could hardly have known about it, the Wannsee Conference, which took place just as the book was being published.

Lewis has great fun with Screwtape chortling in evil glee over things people are tempted into doing that they don't realize lead to their damnation, for instance Letter 17 on the Gluttony of Delicacy. "She would be astonished - one day, I hope, will be - to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small."

Lewis once said that, while the book was easy to write, keeping his mind in Screwtape's persona was cramping, and to my mind the book's biggest flaw is that the author isn't always able to keep it up. Though Screwtape's raging frustration at not being able to figure out what God is really up to is amusing, he can also say things like, "Remember, always, that [God] really likes the little vermin" (Letter 13), after which Lewis realizes that Screwtape is likely neither to say such a thing nor to believe it, and has to make him backtrack (Letter 19).

This brings up the point that the letters were probably written in first draft and never revised. Which is relevant to the Hugos because the sequence was in its entirety (except for a brief preface to the book edition) serialized in a church newspaper in 1941, so it's technically not eligible for 1942. (A definitive edition, with a longer preface and a new Screwtape piece, didn't come out until 1961.) But I won't tell anyone if you won't.

Also, the book is, at a quick estimate, not much over 30,000 words long, so by Hugo standards it's a novella.

Now for Lord Dunsany. In 1942 Dunsany published five stories, all very brief, and about a dozen poems, mostly in Punch. Most of the poems are hopeful gazes towards military victory, and a couple of them introduce the allegorical figure of Liberty, so they could technically be considered fantasy.

None of the stories are SF or fantasy, though the only one of them that's worth reading could possibly squeeze in by courtesy. It's a Jorkens story reprinted in The Fourth Book of Jorkens (1947), where it's the shortest piece in the book. Jorkens is Dunsany's long-running clubman character who's prone to making outrageous claims or telling absurd stories which nobody can disprove. In this brief tale, "On the Other Side of the Sun," that topic comes up - "I wonder what's there?" - and Jorkens astonishes all by stating, "I have been there." His regular patsy, Terbut, demands "When, may I ask?" At Jorkens' reply, "Six months ago," any red-blooded SF reader should know instantly how the story is going to end, but the penny doesn't drop for the hapless Terbut until after he makes a large bet that Jorkens is lying.

The year's other Jorkens story, "The Khamseen" (also in Fourth Book) doesn't even rise to that level of triviality. This time the strained topic is a man with icicles in his hair. Jorkens says he met one once - in the Sahara. Turns out he had a freezer (nothing is said about how it's powered) and was trying to prevent heatstroke.

Similar dorkiness infects the three remaining stories, mercifully uncollected. "Westward Ho!" (Punch, 11 Nov.) asks the unnecessary question, if the Middle East extends as far west as Libya, then where's the Near East? And two exceedingly tiny squibs ("Neutrality Over Berlin", Punch, 21 Oct., and "The Higher Neutrality", Punch, 2 Dec.) depict a wise-guy Irishman named Muirphaigh whose sole function is to enable Dunsany to mock the Irish Republic's position of neutrality in the war.

I should also add that 1942 was the year of publication of Islandia, extracted from the notebooks of its already deceased author, Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia is another story that's fantasy by courtesy, as there's no magic in it, but it describes, in awesome world-creating detail matched only by Tolkien, an imaginary country on an imaginary continent somewhere in the South Atlantic. Even in the abridged published version it's very long, and forms a kind of utopian wish-fulfillment, making Islandia the only novel I know that I would rather live through than read.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

calm and centered

The second annual Women's March is coming through our town on Saturday. B. has signed up to be a Safety Monitor, which means she can participate while being stationed at a particular spot, in her case in the park where the march is terminating, instead of walking a mile, which would be hard on her feet. She's received the same training and handouts given to the Peace Ambassadors, who are the front-line people for dealing with conflict and counter-protesters.

One of the handouts describes "The CLARA Method of De-Escalation" and particularly interested me, because it shows the very rare grasp of how to deal with angry people. (I'm referring here not to counter-protesters, who have a pre-arranged agenda, but to people who've gotten spontaneously angry just because they're PO'd about something.) The name is an acronym for 5 steps: 1, Calm and Center; 2, Listen; 3, Affirm; 4, Respond; 5, Add Information. A similar though not identical text to the handout is on p. 8-9 of this online PDF.

The handout says that most people tend to start with step 4, especially with hostile opponents, but in fact step 4 - which is "answer the question; respond to the issue the person raised" - would still be better than what most people do, which is the exact opposite of all five steps. The usual escalation of conflict technique, refined to perfection by employees of organizations whose procedures are designed to produce frustrated and angry patrons and customers, is: 1, Get Angry Yourself; 2, Don't Listen (pay no attention to the substance of the complaint; this shows that you don't care about the problem); 3, Deny Them Agency (by the time-honored technique of ordering them to calm down before anything else happens; this shows further that you're not interested in the substance of the issue and are only concerned with establishing your own dominance); 4-5, well, you don't even need to get to that, because by now you've riled up the other person so much that you can order them out of the building or slam down the phone, and thus be rid of them, which is all you really wanted anyway.

The CLARA handout says not to proceed beyond step 3, Affirm, "until the speaker has calmed down and seems willing to listen." This is so exactly right! What steps 2 and 3 do is show that you are interested in their complaint and that you do care about dealing with it. If you do that, they will calm down spontaneously. Really, it works! Remember that they didn't start out angry: they got angry out of frustration that their issues were not being dealt with. If you order them to calm down, you're just reinforcing that. Even if you can't solve the problem, showing concern or suggesting amelioration or workarounds can work wonders.

I'm far from a master of interpersonal communication, but when I've been the face of an organization and therefore responsible for speaking for it - as a reference librarian, or running a convention - I've employed these principles for dealing with complaints, a sort of home-brewed version of CLARA, with great success.

The one caution I would give concerns step 3, Affirm. This says, "Express the connection that you found when you listened ... The exact words don't matter." This is wise, but it can easily - too easily, I fear - be assimilated into a pop-psych technique of affirming by repeating back to the person what they said. That only works if it's done with exceptional skill; mostly it's either parroting the exact words (prefaced with "So what you're saying is ...") or some idiotically simple analysis ("You sound really angry"). What these fail to show, what you have to do, is that you've not just heard them but assimilated, understood, grasped the meaning of what they said, by putting it through your own mind and taking the next responsive step.

Monday, January 15, 2018


It seems appropriate to post something that is largely going to repeat a post I put up on this holiday a few years ago. And I'm going to have to change a link to go to the Internet Archive to do it. But it's worth it.

I commemorated MLK day by reading Dr. King's 1964 interview with Playboy (published in the January 1965 issue).

In the interview, Dr. King makes a lot of the same points he'd recently made in his Letter from Birmingham Jail and elsewhere, but why not, they needed to be repeated, and still need it today. His rhetorical style tends to the oratorical even in a one-on-one interview, but he doesn't put on a self-abnegatory show when asked to address personal matters, and he's willing to consider tactical and practical considerations as well as high moral ones. He also has the invaluable ability to issue the necessary caveats to his generalizations without getting sidetracked, sounding imbalanced, or otherwise losing the point. The same is true of his historical comparisons to causes not directly involving blacks; see, for instance, his reference to the Holocaust. I am also struck, mostly because I don't meet a lot of people like that and am always struck when I do, how thoroughly his theological training and his calling as a minister permeate the entirety of his thinking. This is an intellectual and moral force you're reading here, the way that Lincoln was one. Now you can see why King's name is also in our commemorative pantheon.

King has an interesting theory defending the morality of civil disobedience, which I've rarely seen stated so forthrightly, and towards the end he brings up the matter of social welfare spending, which is where I think he'd be most dismayed by the situation today. There's much else I could say about this, but I'll close here and just refer you to the interview for more.

Friday, January 12, 2018

English suites no. 19

No title could possibly sound duller and more academic than Four Pieces for Orchestra by Simon Jeffes. It's the kind of title you'd expect on some horrifying chunk of atonal modernism from the Second Viennese School. But nothing could be more unlike what you are about to hear.

Though Jeffes was classically trained, he wasn't really a classical musician. He was a free spirit who tried all the established forms of music, both classical and popular, of his time, and was dissatisfied with all of them. One day in 1972, in a delirium from food poisoning, he dreamed that he heard the words, "I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café. I will tell you things at random."

Through some logical process he was capable of discerning, this inspired Jeffes to found a scratch band called the Penguin Café Orchestra, to play little experimental pieces of his own composition. Its membership was variable, but a typical PCO lineup included a few violins and cellos, guitar and ukulele, perhaps some winds and a trombone, a drum kit, and a portative organ. It made quite an impact in the odder and more eccentric circles of British music before disbanding on Jeffes' early death from cancer in 1997.

Anyway, the Four Pieces for Orchestra are simply arrangements for full conventional orchestra of four of the PCO's greatest hits. There's a bit of "world music," a bit of pop, a bit of minimalism, a bit of a lot of things. If the minimalist repetition of the first movement gets to you, don't give up: the two slower movements that follow are quite different.

At least two of these pieces have achieved further life. I was reminded of Jeffes' work recently by hearing "Perpetuum Mobile" as the music closing the fourth episode of the HBO Handmaid's Tale. And "Music for a Found Harmonium" has actually entered the folk process. The title tells what it is, some noodling that Jeffes improvised on a harmonium he found abandoned on a street in Kyoto, Japan, during a PCO tour there. But what Jeffes didn't realize is that his tune was ideal for adaptation into an Irish reel. The all-star Irish band Patrick Street so adapted it: listen to this, it's hot stuff!

Since then it's been picked up by Irish and Irish-style folk musicians everywhere. (These guys have got a little surprise for you just after four minutes in.) Or, if you want to know what it sounded like when the Penguin Café Orchestra played it: