Monday, December 31, 2012

the annual year-end post

And then I wrote: Not a lot, really. One major article published, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2009," co-authored with Merlin DeTardo, in the journal Tolkien Studies. This will be the last in a series of eight (one covering two years) for me, as I've been promoted to co-editor of the journal, but while that's already meant a lot of work, none of it is yet visible. One review, one article, and one short contribution in Mythprint, though I have three other reviews in press there. I also have a short piece in press in a festschrift honoring Tom Shippey, which is actually reprinted from a Tolkien fanzine appearance four years ago, but I don't know when the book is coming out, and the publisher has not announced it on its website.

On the other hand, I've had 27 pieces published on San Francisco Classical Voice, more than two per month: one major article (a report on the Stanford "Reactions to the Record" symposium), a concerts preview survey, 12 orchestra reviews, 9 chamber music and solo recital reviews, and 4 CD reviews. So that's been keeping me busy. The furthest I got from home this year was the California Symphony in Walnut Creek. Speaking of travel ...

And then I went: Not very far. Just two plane trips, both brief and to the point, and three overnight car expeditions, one of them just to Berkeley for Mythcon, because commuting would have been impractical. Total list of cities stayed in away from home:

Seattle, WA
Sacramento, CA
Greensburg, PA
Berkeley, CA
Pismo Beach, CA
Glendora, CA

The trip to PA was possibly the only one I've ever taken (since I could read, anyway) without the personal company of a single map, as I was entirely in other people's hands and I'd been basically everywhere I was going before. The trip to Southern California involved driving on back roads and to obscure places I'd never been in a lifetime of regularly driving there, and consequently employed many maps. The overnight in Sacramento was for my most personally unusual and unprecedented activity of the year, viewing the annular eclipse in Redding. The remaining two trips were for Potlatch and Mythcon, further than which my SFnal convention attendance is unlikely to extend in the future, either.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Australians in France!

Sorry, but that's the thought that kept coming to mind whenever Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe face each other down, which they do frequently, as Valjean and Javert in the movie of Les Misérables.

I read a lot of reviews of this movie before seeing it, many of which claimed the singing was terrible - wrong - and some of which went so far as to slam the musical itself for pedestrian lyrics and music. That I already knew was wrong, for I'd seen the show on stage, years ago. As B. puts it, Les Miz has only four tunes, and they get repeated over and over. But at least it has tunes, and they're good tunes that you can remember the next day, or, in truth, twenty years later. As I found when attending a "best of current Broadway" free show-in-the-park in Manhattan four years ago, none of those shows had anything I could still remember by the time we left the park at the end of the hour.

My personal jury is still out on the question of whether having the ballads whispered in close-ups is really more effective than having them belted out to the rafters on stage, plausibility be hanged. The plot mix seemed to tilt a lot more towards the personal over the epic than in my memory of the stage show, almost as if it were saying, "This crazy world doesn't amount to a hill of beans next to the problems of three little people," but that may be my hallucination.

Still, I will cop to the emotional effectiveness of the final scene, where Valjean dies before Cosette's eyes [oh, come on, surely we don't need spoiler warnings for this story], and his ghost gets up and slowly walks away, like Hazel's ghost at the end of Watership Down.

Particular casting points for having childhood and adult Éponines and Cosettes 1) who look enough like themselves at the other age that you can accept that they're the same person, and 2) who, all four of them, look enough like their putative mothers that you can accept that they're their daughters.

The only casting I found ineffective was Crowe's, actually. Javert is a man of rigid iron, and Crowe does better playing characters like Captain Jack or General Maximus, men of flexible steel. Singing aside, Crowe would have been better cast as Valjean. Mel Gibson, were he still the right age, and not crazy, and could sing, would have made a better Javert if you really need an Australian.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My last couple of days saw brief but intensive tours of duty as a member of the DeHoard crew. Victory at sea, the sea of paper and fabric.

Friday, December 28, 2012

a Norman Rockwell original

I'd once seen an original painting by Norman Rockwell, and irrespective of my opinions of its subject matter, I was astonished at the sheer beauty of its mere draughtsmanship. No reproduction, including this one, captures the sheer elegance and control of detail, as well as the shaping and effectiveness of the whole.

At that point I forget anything I'd once been inculcated with about Norman Rockwell, ignorable corny Americanist, and began to respect him as a great artist.

Consequently I was a willing target for a suggestion to visit the huge Rockwell exhibition currently going on at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Thither B. and my mother and I went yesterday. It doesn't have that Nixon portrait (that's in the presidents file of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.), but it does have an enormous selection of famous and obscure work from the Rockwell gallery in Massachusetts. And it's on for another month, so there's still a chance for locals to see it.

But, despite that awesome draughtsmanship well exhibited, the most astonishing thing in the hall is a set of printed reproductions: a corridor lined with framed original copies of every single one of the 323 Saturday Evening Post covers that Rockwell painted, usually 5 or 10 of them a year for over 45 years. They're not all corny; some of them are weird or surreal or self-referential or just cheeky.

What the original paintings make clear is, first, how much care and detail Rockwell packed in - his triple self-portrait, for instance, is over 3 feet high, but the Post printed it at about 1/6th of its full size - and, second, that the corniness was, at least in part, his editors' doing, not his own, because, once freed from the Post's puritan content restrictions, he began creating openly and powerfully political art, like "The Problem We All Live With" and "Christmas Eve in Bethlehem."

Of the works I hadn't seen before, this Post cover was the most striking. As with others, it's less forceful in reproduction. It shows a girl, apparently just pre-adolescent, her doll tossed to the side, trying on lipstick, presumably for the first time, and comparing her visage in a mirror to that of a woman's glamor photo held in her lap.

And it occurred to me that this is Susan Pevensie at the moment that she loses Narnia.

Nothing in C.S. Lewis studies has been more unnecessarily roiling than the so-called "Problem of Susan", because nothing he wrote has been more persistently misunderstood. (Here are a couple of clear-minded explanations.) This painting, showing a girl in the same situation as Susan, might help clear it up. This girl isn't interested in sex. She's trying to be Grown-Up, in capital letters, and trying it out, perhaps before her time, rather than letting true adulthood grow naturally into her. And, it seemed to me on looking at the original painting, she is doing this less because she really wants to than because she feels obliged to. This is What Women Do, and, if she is to be a woman, she'd better do it. That gives it a poignancy of loss of childhood, represented by the undignified position of the doll, which may be absent from Lewis's tone.

Remember, too, if you're minded to query the girl's sense of the obligations of womanhood, that this is 1954 - just as the Narnian books were being published - with all of the cultural baggage of that period in Anglo-American middle-class life. Which brings me to my last point about Rockwell: how well and vividly he illustrated the culture he belonged to. Much of Rockwell's interest was in childhood. My mother's childhood was in the middle of the Rockwell era, in a fairly Rockwellish environment, and she exclaimed at his ability to capture detail in such matters as the clothes. Look at her scuffed shoes, she said. That's what saddle shoes really looked like, and you won't see that in photos, which would be neatly posed wearing new ones. Corniness is not just corny: in Rockwell, it's the truth.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

an answer I require

I did well in Jon Carroll's Christmas quiz this year, as revealed by the answers.

I knew the answers to 11, 13, 14, and 20 without even having to puzzle over them, and got 12 right on the first shot too. That's better than I normally do. I knew 1 in general terms, though not the specifics, and 2 except that I misspelled it, and 3 except that I got the case of the last word wrong, and I guessed 5 correctly on being put the question, which implied something other than the default answer. I got 3/4 of question 4, 3/5 of question 6 (though without all the details given in the answers), and 1/3 of question 8. I knew the first part of 7 without even needing the hint, and guessed the work referred to in the follow-up and what its cultural landmark was, though not the author's other honor.

No question in the entire history of this quiz has bothered me less at not being able to answer than this year's 16, because I have never claimed to know anything whatever about the subject. Same thing goes for 10, and I don't mind admitting that one of the factors of 9 is also beyond me.

That leaves 17, which I genuinely didn't know, 18 and 19, which I once knew but forgot, and 15, which I should have gotten right but fastened on one of his compatriot contemporaries.

Not bad.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas presents

His and her matching Barnes & Noble gift certificates. From each other.

Well, great minds ...

Actually, there was more. But this is the amusing part.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


1. Rainy day in California. And a typical one by our standards. Instead of a storm moving briskly in and out, it sneaks in overnight and then everything is just wet and soggy all day.

2. Nevertheless we ventured out to the annual caroling, as usual inside and toasty. Had a flutist for a while, but she flit. Sang "Deck Us All with Boston Charlie" in honor of absent friends. B. led a rousing rendition of "Carol of the Bells" in cat language. Sang "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." Man, that Praetorius really knew how to arrange four-part harmony. Sang a Czech carol, but in English. ("I'd rather sing in German than in Czech / Yes, I would / If I only could / I surely would." People get a little punch-drunk after lots of caroling.)

3. It's the annual Chronicle geography quiz. Answers are on the lower half of the second online page. Of the 50 questions, I didn't know nos. 2, 26, 31, 43, 44, 46, 47, or 48, should have known 5, 8, 11, 34, and 37, got close on 7, 18, and 50, part right on 25, guessed wrong on 41, guessed right on 9 and 16, and the other thirty were all easy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

and I say the hell with it

Here's another article on how to deal with children who are picky eaters. Really, I wonder if the people who write these articles ever were children, because they invariably have no idea how children think, or feel, or react.

As a child, I was not the extreme kind of picky eater who refuses to subsist on anything but macaroni and cheese, or hamburgers and french fries. I ate a good variety of healthy foods, and from the moment I could take solids would devour as much broccoli or spinach - two of the vegetables classically most hated by children - as you would give me. I liked other veggies, too, but there were others I totally detested, including beets, peas, lima beans, brussel sprouts, and cooked carrots. (I liked raw ones.) My particular curse was potato. In any form other than fried to death, like potato chips, something about the mix of mealy texture and taste just repels me.

Another problem was certain combinations. I liked fish and I liked corn, but if the sauce from one got into the other, the combined taste was literally nauseating. Cold meat sandwiches, I'd take apart and eat all the ingredients separately.

Except for the one about potato, which was unique to me, my brothers shared most of these dislikes. And another thing: most of what I disliked as a child, I still dislike today.1 The difference is that now I can stomach them down if I have to. The taste is still the same, it's just less hideously intense. (I know this because of attempts at politeness as a guest in people's homes for dinner.) Correlate that with a developed taste as an adult for spicy foods, which never attracted me as a child (not that I had much opportunity to try them in those days), it seems crystally obvious to me that children's taste buds are simply younger, more vigorous, and more intense than adults', same as are their eyesight, their hearing, their emotions, and just about everything else.

But what does the article say? It says, eat the food yourself and show how good it is. Good lord, I had the rebuttal to that when I was five. "Fine, you eat it, then. If you like it so much, you can have mine, too." You're not going to convince me by example that my taste buds are lying to me about how something tastes, any more than by taking something down off a high shelf you can convince me that I could reach it, too.

It says, "When your kid says of the perfectly delicious pasta you raced home from work to cook for him, But I don’t like the way it tastes, she may not be lying."2 May not be lying? MAY not be lying? I NEVER lied when I said food tasted bad, though in the opposite direction I eventually learned to be polite to the cook. Never, nor did my brothers. As my most analytic brother repeatedly pointed out, he'd be delighted if his tastes changed and he liked everything on the plate and thus avoid these endless squabbles. We didn't like hating foods; we hated it. We hated not getting enough to eat, we hated displeasing our parents through no fault of our own, we hated arguing over it, we hated the implication that we were lying for some unfathomable reason.

It says, don't threaten to revoke privileges. OK, that one I'll go along with. That's not going to make food taste better.

It says, offer small rewards, as long as they aren't preferred foods. No, that's the flip side of revoking privileges. If offering cookies as a reward for eating lima beans only reinforces that cookies are good and lima beans are bad, offering stickers as a reward for eating lima beans also only reinforces that stickers are good and lima beans are bad. It doesn't change how lima beans taste.

Oh, but the article says it does. It says, make the child try the food 15 to 20 times. Isn't that the definition of insanity, trying something over and over and expecting a different result? And saying that if it doesn't work, you haven't tried it often enough? Maybe by the time you've offered the food 20 times, the child has gotten older and the taste buds have matured, i.e. faded. We had some of those foods 20 times and they never got any better. Some were worse than others, but for the worst, every meal of it, every bite, was torture. We're not talking "ehhh, I don't wanna try something new, I don't like the look of it," we're talking hard-earned experience of vile, unspeakable awfulness.

The article doesn't discuss dislike of combinations, but I've seen that absurdly psychoanalyzed as a deep-seated need to sort life into distinct compartments. No, it was because we hated the combined taste, which is what we said was the reason. My father thought it the height of wit to say, "It all gets mixed up in your stomach anyway," which has nothing to do with the taste, as we repeatedly pointed out to no avail. Such irrelevant logic did not impress us.

So, while I don't know what to say to the parents of mono-eaters, the kids who won't touch anything, except to note that I never knew any such children in my own childhood, the same way I never heard of anyone allergic to peanuts in those days either,3 for the ordinary picky eater I say: trust your children. If they say they hate a food, for god's sake feed them something equally nutritious that they do like. If you're bored by it, eat something else yourself, or just put up with it. Isn't that less bad than endless complaints from tortured children?

1. One exception: pizza. Yes, I was the only child in the world who hated pizza. It was the combo of cheese and bread that got me. Sometime when I was about 17 it suddenly ceased to bother me.

2. The way the child's sex mutates in the middle of the meal is also a disconcerting feature of this story.

3. I'm not saying these things don't exist now. I'm saying that they used to be very rare. And not just unnoticed, rare. Peanut butter was so ubiquitous in children's lunches in my childhood that, if allergies to the mere presence of peanuts were anywhere near as severe and common as they're claimed to be today, children would have been dying like flies. What I'm saying is that something has changed in the way children are reared. In the case of peanut allergies, it's claimed that it's something to do with early exposure to peanuts. What it may be in the case of children who'll only eat macaroni, I don't know. I know two adult men my own age who subsist on the plain hamburger and french fries diet, and always have. That's two, but I didn't know any as a child, and I hear of it a lot more among children today, even though I now know fewer children.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Time Names Mitt Romney Man of the Year 1912

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—In an extraordinary gesture of recognition for a losing Presidential nominee, Time magazine today named former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney Man of the Year 1912.

In a press release explaining its decision, Time’s editorial board wrote, “Even though his quest for the Presidency was unsuccessful, Mr. Romney’s ideas about foreign policy, taxation, wealth inequality, and women’s rights typified the year 1912 as no one else has.”

In giving Mr. Romney the nod, Time said that he beat out such other candidates for Man of the Year 1912 as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic.

“It was very close between Romney and the Titanic guy, but we gave it to Romney because it took him slightly longer to sink,” Time wrote.

Mr. Romney could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said, because he was travelling around the world visiting his money.

-- The Borowitz Report

Robert Bork and the Saturday Night Masacre

I'm finding myself commenting this, in one form or another, a lot:

There is one error in Jeffrey Toobin's blistering obituary of Robert Bork. Bork should not be condemned for being the man who fired Cox. He and Richardson and Ruckelshaus had a meeting in which they agreed that the deed would have to be done - the Justice Dept. as a whole cannot defy the President's will - and since Richardson and Ruckelshaus were resigning in protest, Bork would have to be the one who pulled the trigger. Bork offered to do it and then resign too, but Richardson told him no, don't resign, because that would leave the Dept. without anyone legally capable of serving as Acting Attorney General.

I don't know what Bork's personal opinions on the matter were, but his action was, unfortunately, proper.

Further, when afterwards Nixon called Bork in and offered to appoint him as the new Attorney General, Bork had the wisdom to reply, "That would not be appropriate."

Bork knew he was marked by his role in this, and I was surprised when Reagan pulled him back out of obscurity a decade later and nominated him for the Court, although I found that others, even fellow Watergate junkies, had completely forgotten who he was.

Everything else Toobin says about Bork is completely correct, most emphatically this about his post-nomination career: "In the subsequent quarter-century, Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

two concerts

Both of these could just be called fun.

New Century Chamber Orchestra, Menlo-Atherton CPA, Wednesday (the first time I've heard them anywhere except the Concrete Tent in Palo Alto)

Aulos Ensemble, Kohl Mansion, Sunday

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

president pro what?

The death of Daniel Inouye - all honor to his memory, pretty much the last significant survivor of the last great Senate, and also lately its president pro tem - has afforded Matthew Yglesias the opportunity to write about the absurdity of putting this purely honorary position third in line for the presidential succession.

Yglesias' points are all accurate and thoughtful, but more needs to be said. President pro tem was not originally honorary. The Vice President, as provided for in the Constitution, normally presided over the Senate, and the president pro tempore, to give the title in full, was elected just for the occasion when the VP was absent or the office vacant, to actually preside over the Senate, and was chosen for his actual qualifications to do so. So reliable was the PPT that, in the first presidential succession act of 1792, he was placed second, not third, in the line of succession.

This is why some people claim that David R. Atchison was president for one day in 1849 between the expiration of the term of President Polk and the inauguration of President Taylor. But this is not true; the president pro tem was pro tem, remember, and as Congress had adjourned sine die, Atchison held no such office at the moment and had to be elected anew to it when the new Senate convened.

The temporariness of the office is what led to a change in the law in 1886. The Vice President had died, neither house of Congress had gone into session yet, and thus had elected no Speaker nor president pro tem, so the line of succession was completely vacant. What there was continually in office was a Cabinet, and so the line of succession was changed to eliminate the Congressional officers entirely and put the Cabinet, starting with Secretary of State, in their place.

It made sense. Half a dozen Secretaries of State in the past had actually gone on to be President in their own right, while only one each of Speaker or president pro tem had ever achieved that office. (Trivia question: who were they?)

Ironically, just about that time, things were changing. The Senate changed its rules in 1890 to make president pro tem a permanent position; while he still needed to be elected at the start of each Congress, at least the post ceased to expire every time the VP resumed the chair. In the 1930s Congress began meeting just before the start of the presidential term, instead of nine months later; this eliminated the reason for the 1885-6 gap. No Secretary of State since 1886 has become President, though several have been plausible candidates for the office, including the current incumbent. But very few of either PPTs or Speakers have been presidential candidates, either: since WW2, basically just Richard Russell (before he took office) and Newt Gingrich (afterwards), not an inspiring duo.

In 1947 the succession law was changed again, to the current order: VP, Speaker, PPT, then the Cabinet. This was at the initiative of President Truman, who pointed out that, since the President appoints the Cabinet, in the absence of a VP (which was the case in 1947), the President could appoint his own successor, and Truman didn't think the President ought to be able to do that.

There were several problems with this reasoning. First, why not? If a President leaves office midterm, shouldn't he be able to leave his office to someone sharing his policy views? Even Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, left his office to a man he'd appointed who shared his political stance and was merely untouched by the scandal which was the reason for the resignation. The VP and Secretary of State would normally do so; the Speaker or PPT might not. This actually became a problem during the period of Watergate after Agnew's resignation; House Speaker Carl Albert was aghast at implications that there was a Democratic plot to change the party holding the White House.

Secondly, although the President appoints the Cabinet, they have to be approved by the Senate, and it's not nominal because sometimes they don't approve. (On one infamous occasion, a nominee lost on a tie vote; the VP, who could have broken the tie, was taking a nap and didn't wake up in time.) The President in effect appoints the VP, too; though the VP must be approved by the convention and then elected by the voters and the Electoral College, they don't really have much choice, given the presidential candidate they've accepted.

Possibly Truman was motivated by irritation at calls proposing that, since the Democrats had just massively lost the 1946 midterm elections, he should appoint a Republican as Secretary of State and then resign; but, perforce, Republicans had become Speaker and PPT and, once the law was altered, he could have resigned with the same effect without taking the intermediary step.

It's also possible that Truman saw the Secretary of State as the President's creature in a way the VP was not. The VP cannot be fired midterm as a Cabinet officer may; also, the idea of the VP as the President's choice was a new one, dating from FDR. Previously, VPs were usually picked by party bosses as ticket-balancers and forced on presidential candidates who often held very different political views. (This had created political turmoil at every midterm VP succession up through 1901.)

Ironically, things were changing again. The idea of the VP as the emergency backup President was beginning to take hold in hair-trigger Cold War conditions, and concern for the rest of the line of succession to be similarly ship-shape was growing. Meanwhile, the VP's presiding over the Senate had become more nominal and purely ceremonial (the nap incident mentioned above was a major blow to VPs' credibility as presiding officers), and so was the president pro tem's. Strangely, the last vestiges of the office's role as the best senator to preside in the VP's absence was cast off at just about the time he was put back in the line of succession, and since then he has always been automatically the senior senator of the majority party, with results that Yglesias describes. Meanwhile, the actual presiding over the Senate is now usually done by majority-party frosh, who thereby get the opportunity to learn Senate procedure. The Speaker of the House is still the leader of the majority party, but that's equally tradition: he doesn't have to be (the Speaker of the British House of Commons is emphatically not, but is entirely nonpartisan).

In the meantime, if something should happen simultaneously to Obama and Biden, who should become President? Should it be John Boehner, or, if he went in the same explosion, Inouye while he still (barely) lived, or Pat Leahy, Inouye's putative successor? Or should it be Hillary Clinton or (prospectively) John Kerry? I think the answer is obvious.

Monday, December 17, 2012

electoral college

The Electoral College voted today, and, although the votes won't be counted officially for a couple weeks yet, and we may not know about individual faithless electors until then, it appeared to go without any major hitch. This was of interest this year, since a few Republicans somehow got it into their heads that, if the Republican electors withheld their votes, they could prevent a quorum and throw the election into the House. Unfortunately for them, they misread the Constitution. The supermajority quorum is for a House contingent election; as for the Electoral College, so long as over half the electors vote for one candidate, it doesn't matter what the rest of them do. And Obama has the votes.

Retro stuff was going on, though, in Romney's stronghold of Mississippi:

The state's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, joked that Billy Mounger, an 86-year-old elector, probably wished to vote for Calvin Coolidge, a renowned small-government conservative president in the 1920s.

"I'd like to have Coolidge back," said Mounger, a Jackson businessman.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christopher Tolkien moans in pain

A number of people have been circulating around an English translation of an article by the French paper Le Monde including what is claimed to be the first-ever press interview with Christopher Tolkien, son and literary executor of J.R.R. Tolkien. The most notable thing CT is quoted as saying therein is,

"They eviscerated the book [The Lord of the Rings] by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film. Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away."
Wow. But wait. Is this what Christopher Tolkien really said, and is it really his first recorded words on the subject?

Apparently, it's not either of these things. Although this may have been CT's first sit-down press interview, he's recorded television interviews before. And though I don't have a copy to hand, he did issue a brief statement at the time of the Lord of the Rings movies a decade ago, to the effect that he would not be discussing it, but making it clear that his approval would not be forthcoming and was definitely being withheld. So that the above are his sentiments is not surprising. (At least half of the top Tolkien scholars feel similarly, and decline to speak out about the movies for the same reason, which reticence enables certain fools to claim they do not exist.)

As for the actual words, remember that the above is a translation. Whether CT spoke in French I don't know - he's been living in France for over 35 years - but that's the language he was published in. The above is an unauthorized translation, and, according to Tolkien scholar Marcel Aubron-Bülles, who is fluent in French and English as well as his native German, it's not a very good one. Marcel says, on an e-mail list I belong to, that he and some colleagues were refused permission by all parties involved to publish their own translation, and they do not wish to do so without permission. All he will say is, "In the original the article would leave almost all readers sympathetic to the cause of Christopher; with the translation this does not seem to be the case." He recommends that we read the original article in French. Well, in French CT says,

"Ils ont éviscéré le livre, en en faisant un film d'action pour les 15-25 ans. Et il paraît que Le Hobbit sera du même acabit. Tolkien est devenu un monstre, dévoré par sa popularité et absorbé par l'absurdité de l'époque. Le fossé qui s'est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l'œuvre, et ce qu'elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création. Il ne me reste qu'une seule solution: tourner la tête."
That's fine if you read French. My French, which is adequate for assigning library subject headings to a book on history or law, is not up to determining the quality of a translation. And don't try it in Google Translate, either; I did, and that machine doesn't know English, let alone French, as well as the bad translator does.

So I don't know if what I'm responding to is Christopher Tolkien or not, but I don't find that much to disagree with in it. Yes, the movies eviscerated the book. No, the fact that the book is still on the shelf does not make up for this. The movies dominate the discourse, and the book's distinctive qualities get overshadowed, with features from the movie even mistaken for the book's. (For an example of what this kind of media colonization looks like in its fully developed phase, see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book whose very title has been drowned out by its movie's.) Is the movie for young people aged 15 to 25? Well, not for me; I didn't care for movies like that when I was that age, or now, either. But I loved Tolkien's writing, then and now, so I feel entitled to say that they're very different. The differences in the plot are not that important; it's the differences in spirit and atmosphere which really stand out, and as defenders of the movie's changes say precisely the opposite, that the movies got the spirit right, that accounts for the bitterness in Christopher Tolkien's tone, and my own.

As for the nature of the chasm between the two works, and the specifics of the diminishment of the book's philosophical impact, that CT speaks of, that will have to go in another post.

CT says his solution is to turn his head away. Not entirely: as I've noted, he's spoken on the subject before. But mostly he's kept silent, on this and anything else outside of the scholarly books he's produced, editing his father's writings. But he says it's the solution for him, not for anyone else, and it's easy for him to say. He's not active in Tolkien fandom and never has been, and he's been living in seclusion for some 35 years. I don't have his option; living in the world, and interacting with Tolkien fans, some of whom perforce are also Jackson fans and think the one has something to do with the other, I cannot avoid these movies by not seeing them or not talking about them. All I'd do is force a muzzle on myself in an interesting conversation, or quit Tolkien discussion altogether, and I don't wish to do that.

Nor would it be wise, in my capacity as a scholar of the Tolkien secondary literature, to remain ignorant of the movies, because their colonization of the book even infects scholarship. How could I know how to take, or to counteract, bizarre claims that Aragorn is a reluctant king, or that Sauron the terrible is a helpless eyeball, if I didn't know where they came from - the movies, of course - or why? At the very least, know thine enemy.

Where I potentially question CT's statement, assuming it's rendered accurately, is in the implication that it has affected the work itself and everything to do with it. To an extent, yes; I noted the media colonization and how that even affects some scholarship. But productive Tolkien scholarship continues to pour forth, as CT very well knows, because I know he reads some of it. Perhaps its volume is indeed somewhat encouraged by the movies, and only some of the time is it marred by writers' inability to distinguish between the movies and the book.

I also find interesting the emphasis of the Estate on promoting Tolkien's other work, not The Lord of the Rings. To some extent I have no problem with this. The Lord of the Rings doesn't need promoting; much of the rest of his work is little-known, and some of that is unjustifiably little-known. But there is an implication that, because the Silmarillion (in its broad sense, not specifically the 1977 volume of that title) was his life-work, and The Lord of the Rings only an odd, and in some respects uncharacteristic, offshoot (for one thing, the Silmarillion is a lot less sexually dimorphic than The Lord of the Rings, let alone The Hobbit), that the Silmarillion is therefore more important. I disagree. The Silmarillion is an amazing accomplishment, rich and loamy, but it's not designed for a mass audience's interest. It is only that the author found a bridge between it and popularity with The Lord of the Rings that the Silmarillion is of general interest at all, and it doesn't matter that The Lord of the Rings is a kind of a bastard work, begun not at Tolkien's own initiative but at the behest of his publisher. What matters is that he completed it. That was very rare for Tolkien. Unless I'm missing something, he didn't complete any of the large-scale narrative projects that comprise the Silmarillion, and there were something like a couple dozen of them meeting that threshold over his life. The Silmarillion was his lifework, yes, but The Lord of the Rings is his masterwork, and those who admire the Silmarillion more need to accept that.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I saw it in 2D, 24 fps, and I still feel as if I've been bludgeoned by a giant stick.

Nobody who loves the book should be wooed thereby into seeing this movie (unless, poor sods like me, they feel they have to). Nobody.

I doubt I'll have any more to say until the bruises begin to go down.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

let us now praise famous musicians

Three distinguished names from three fields of music who have died in the last month deserve comment by me.

1. Charles Rosen. A noted pianist, but more famous as a musicologist (although he claimed not to be one, not having a degree in the field), he wrote deeply insightful books on classical and romantic musical style, which I'm afraid I never got much out of, because they're a bit above my grade level. I did get to meet him, once, when he attended the Stanford recordings symposium four years ago, where he irritated many by making contrarian remarks casting doubt on the assumptions motivating the whole symposium. I didn't share the musical tastes he expressed there, but I thought his logical strictures had a lot to be said for them.

2. Dave Brubeck. I don't often listen to jazz, but when I do, it's likely to be Dave Brubeck.

3. Michael Dunford. Who? Well, not very many people, even rock fans, know of this guy. He was the guitarist and chief composer for the 1970s English art-rock band Renaissance, which has been one of my secret obscure passions (and one of the 2 to 5 rock bands, depending on your definition of "rock band", that I actually like) ever since DGK quietly put on one of their albums while I was at his house one day some 30 years ago, and I came back next week and said, "What was that album you played the last time I was here?" because it had not left my head in the interim.

What made Renaissance great was not just the sensitive classical influence on their work, which they actually wore pretty lightly, but Dunford's sumptuously beautiful melodies and the transparently clear and unearthly way that vocalist Annie Haslam sang them. Dunford's hypnotically rhythmic fingerwork and his propensity for playing it on an acoustic guitar also won my favor.

They may have to grow on you - they had to seep in to me - but here are my three favorite songs of theirs, all of them strongly bent towards the lyrical side of the band's output. (All the lyrics are by Betty Thatcher, a reclusive poet to whom Dunford would mail tapes of his melodies, and she'd send back these cryptic ... words.) Be patient: the Renaissance is not in a hurry.

"At the Harbour" - this song is framed by Renaissance's pianist John Tout playing a remarkably straight and unimpressionistic version of Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie.

"Black Flame" - if there's one Renaissance song I could save from the dust of civilization, this would be the one.

"Ocean Gypsy" - this song was later, and apparently somewhat more famously, covered by a band called Blackmore's Night, but this is the original.

Thank you for these, Mr Dunford - and colleagues.

Monday, December 10, 2012

how long is it?

Recently in a comment section not quite near you, Lisa Hirsch opined that "A modest and charming book ought to get a modest and charming film."

Well, it's not going to get one.

Early reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have one thing in particular to say about the movie, besides comments on the 48fps: it's loooong. And slooooow.

How long and slow is it? One review actually tries to calculate minutes per page. And that is minutes per page, not pages per minute. (Another review and another and an American one too.)

According to IMDB, the movie is 169 minutes long: that's 2 hours and 49 minutes. That's almost as long as Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring, part 1 of his Lord of the Rings, which in theatrical release (the short version) was 2 minutes short of 3 hours. According to the reviews, Jackson's Hobbit part 1 covers the first 6 chapters: that's almost exactly one-third of the book. Although the original 3-movie plan for The Hobbit was to have the third movie cover events between The Hobbit (which takes place first) and The Lord of the Rings, it now appears he's just splitting The Hobbit up into three movies: the taglines for the sequels on IMDB correspond to the plot that way.

If the two subsequent movies are the same length, the totality will be 8 hours and 27 minutes. More likely, it'll be longer: Jackson's LOTR sequels were longer than his first one. (Meanwhile, Tolkien's successive volumes were consecutively shorter, if you exclude the Appendices.) If The Hobbit movies increase in size at the same ratio that the LOTR movies did, the total will be about 9 hours, plus or minus 15 minutes, depending on whether you take the ratio of the theatrical versions or the extended editions.

The Hobbit in the standard paperback is 273 pages of text (287 - 14 forematter). In the same edition, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings total 1283 pages if you exclude the Prologue and Appendices, 1442 if you don't. That's approximately five times as long a book, but it didn't get five times as long a movie.

The Lord of the Rings movies, then, worked their way through the book at an average rate of between 1.88 and 2.58 pages a minute, depending on the page count above and whether you use the theatrical or extended editions of the movies. The Hobbit, meanwhile, is proceeding through the book at the stately pace of between 0.49 and 0.54 pages a minute, depending on how long the three movies turn out.

Now comes the interesting part, and trust me, I've worked this out with a calculator. If Jackson had gone through The Hobbit at the same clip that he proceeded through The Lord of the Rings in its theatrical version - already a massively slow undertaking by movie standards; the four-hour Gormenghast miniseries ran through its two huge volumes at nearly 5 pages a minute - it'd be between 105 and 120 minutes. Even at extended edition rates it'd be no more than 145 minutes. (At Gormenghast rates it'd be over in one hour.)

But! What if he'd filmed The Lord of the Rings at the pace he's filming The Hobbit? (If he'd filmed it at Gormenghast rates the entire thing would have been 4 1/2 hours - just right for the two-movie version he'd originally intended.) Determining the answer depends on both whether you're counting the Prologue and Appendices as part of the book, and on how long you expect the three-part Hobbit to turn out, but the answer would be somewhere between 40 and 49 hours. Ye gods.

Some of the Hobbit movie reviewers say that only Tolkien fans will enjoy something that slow-paced. They're wrong: only the most devoted Peter Jackson fans will. One of the frequent defenses of the LOTR films is that Tolkien fans would only be happy if they got something that was days long and had everything from the book in it. This time we're actually getting that. I don't expect to like the prospect.

From the length alone, I'm expecting this movie to be Jackson's Phantom Menace, the most tedious blockbuster I ever saw. Maybe it will induce equal cringes of embarrassment in the movie-maker's fans, and maybe the movie will slink away in shame and we can forget about it, like we eventually forgot about Ralph whatzisname. That would be the happiest outcome.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

three small concerts

1. Friday. I'm the emergency fill-in reviewer (review) for the Del Sol Quartet concert that evening. In the City. At some old warehouse in the crease between Folsom and Potrero; what am I doing down there? And I only get charged with this task about noon. Del Sol plays new music; amazingly, one of the pieces on the program I already know. I spend what little time I have to prepare by listening to web recordings of music by the other composers. None of it winds up sounding much like the string quartets I hear live that evening, but I do like some of it, especially the second half of this one, which is where I first get the idea that its composer is a man with a "sure sense of dramatic structure." At least I've heard Del Sol often enough that when I write of their evolution in character, I speak from experience.

2. Saturday. Palo Alto Philharmonic, local amateur orchestra. What happens if you invite as soloist a violinist who's more used to playing in orchestras? She plays along with the firsts while waiting for her solo entrance, that's what, as if this were Bach instead of Brahms. In truth, Christina Mok has been getting better at solo work, and now she's better than the orchestra, at least if it's this one. The other half of the program is Americana: Harris' Third Symphony, which the orchestra gets a good handle on, and Ives' Decoration Day, which they don't.

3. Sunday. Free Renaissance music concert in the library. Woman in Ren Faire-type costume, bearing lute. Speaks with a brassy voice, sings higher and clearer and very well. Sings a song I recognize from a Philip Pickett album. Sometimes accompanied by another woman, similarly attired, bearing recorders of varying sizes, mostly inaudible, which turns out to be a relief.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

"MTT conducts Berlioz" read the concert description on the ticket. But he didn't.

Tonight's concert went through two program alterations on the way which eliminated both of the pieces originally scheduled to be on it. Gone was Berlioz, and gone was the US premiere of a piano concerto by some German composer, probably never written, or at least I could find no reference to it on his website.

Instead, we got, as a curtain-raiser, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, very nicely done, followed by a premiere in the form of Pandora for string orchestra, by associate concertmaster Mark Volkert. This had been originally scheduled for October, but since, according to the program, it was written two years ago, dilatoriness of the composer is unlikely to have been responsible for the change.

Volkert's piece seemed to me to consist of shrieking and screeching. As I'm not formally reviewing this concert, I'm not obliged to describe it any more fully than that, nor to try to pretend that I liked it.

Then came Yefim Bronfman to play Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, which I'm sure I enjoyed infinitely more than I would have the new concerto he was originally scheduled to play. I would just like to remind anyone who holds to the theory that ugly times demand ugly music that Beethoven wrote this concerto while Napoleon was invading Vienna. Beethoven hid in the cellar with pillows over his ears, trying to protect the remains of his hearing from the sound of cannon. Yet in the midst of this he composed what, by dint of its slow movement, is the most beautiful concerto ever written. It received a beautiful performance tonight.

Monday, December 3, 2012


It was Saturday, yes. To the Last Homely House in the afternoon for the traditionally-evening, but we're changing the tradition, Reading and Eating Meeting, where my reading offering was selections from The Hobbit - the scenes introducing Gandalf and Gollum - in token of the brief remaining interval during which we still can read it, unbesmirched. (Anyone who says "the book will still be on the shelf" will be docked of their Tolkien credentials for terminally unperceptive cluelessness.)

Then rush down to San Jose for this Symphony Silicon Valley concert. Fortunately, the horrible acoustics down in the pit gave me plenty to write about, because after a hard afternoon's reading and listening and eating I was a little tired out, which lowers my aesthetic sensitivity level drastically. The other weird thing for me about writing this review was referring to the pianist as "Serkin". Though Peter Serkin is now long since a senior, respected figure in his own right on the concert stage, to me the name "Serkin" by itself still means his late father Rudolf, just as there were still people in the 1940s to whom "Churchill" by itself still meant Winston's father, Lord Randolph.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

a southern venture

So I was away for nearly a week, just before Thanksgiving. Did you notice I was gone? I drove my trusty small blue thing to LA for an errand with assorted objects. One of those objects was to visit friends who are mother & daughter, and here to prove it am I in my position to cheer on daughter who has just run 5K in 35 minutes, which was enough to put her, at age 10, 18th of 87 in the 12-and-under age group in the local municipal race in the rain and drizzle on Saturday morning. (Mom, who took this picture, also came in 18th in her age group, but we will draw a discreet veil over exactly what that age group was.)

Much else we did together. Having, with regrets, missed the recital program that daughter's dance academy put on in June, at least I got to see the videorecording. Much variety of numbers, ranging from quasi-ballet to something of a cross between jazz dancing and break dancing, and of ages from 3-year-olds toddling around the stage up to the maturity of 18. Daughter's best number came when she and a line of other pre-teens in sailor costumes tap-danced to a recording of "Anything Goes", a song which, I gathered, the instructors told the girls nothing about.

While there, I got to visit a fledgling Inklings collection at the college library. And I got to hear an impressively good 8-voice caroling group at the town's downtown festive evening holiday walk. And I played with the family dog. Most of you won't believe I did this. The dog's name is Queen Lucy of Narnia; she is utterly black in fur and appears to be a toy poodle or something of that nature, insofar as it's possible to make the breed out through the blackness. Queen Lucy has one interest in life, a hollow-matrix rubber ball. She picks it up and trots over to you, puts the ball down, and nudges it with her snout in your direction. And then you had better either pick it up and throw it, or kick it, so that she can chase it and bring it back again, or you will get barked at. This goes on all day. Queen Lucy would sometimes pre-emptively run where the ball had gone last time; I would then invariably throw it in the other direction. This made no difference to the dog, who would change gears and run the other way.

Also seen and chatted with much on this visit, Lynn Maudlin who came over for takeout Chinese; Sherwood Smith, for whom I played CDs of two of the Three Greatest 20th Century Symphonists You've Never Heard Of, and a musical post with genuine sound files is coming soon, I promise; and Sarah Beach, with whom I talked Tolkien over Olvera Street Mexican food. And others, leading to the spookiest event of the trip, a midnight ceremony in a rambling house at the highest tip of the foothills at which we turned out the lights, lit numerous candles, and paid respect to the departed to the strains of a recording of Purcell's Ode on the Death of Queen Mary.

And a few other odd errands. Having failed to secure a phone number that wasn't to a sales bank incapable of addressing my problem, I visited in person the headquarters of a certain satellite TV company, threw down on the front desk a huge pile of junk mail (not bills) that they'd been sending over the last five years to someone who does not live at my house, and demanded that they do something to remove this name from their mailing list, an ultimatum they accepted with courtesy. On the way home I stopped, as I've done before, at Galco's, the soda-pop shop in Highland Park, to pick up a caseload of miscellaneous brands of obscure root beers, ginger beers, spruce beers, and other odd drinks that nobody else carries in such profusion; also four bottles of different brands of diet cream soda as a "honey, I'm home" present for my B.

And one more big errand, to the Eaton Collection, the big sf collection at UC Riverside, to donate to their fanzine holdings (or, if they're duplicates, to other libraries in their consortium that collect fanzines) six boxes of old fanzines, mostly apas, from my garage. This included the entire back stock of C/RAPA-pi from my OEship, a duplicate set of Lasfapa from its glory days that fell into my hands under peculiar circumstances, and most of my personal copies of FAPA, an apa that is more nuisance to store and organize than it is desirable to keep. True, I might have dropped them off at some Corflu's freebie table, but having concluded a few months ago that neither that, nor any other significant fanac, is liable to be in my future, I decided that this was a better home.

Riverside was my first stop, and I was due there at 3 pm on Thursday. Having gotten as far as San Luis Obispo by Wednesday night, I saw no reason to struggle through the LA freeways. Instead, I went around the north side of the mountains sheltering the LA basin. A series of back state highways and unnumbered mountain roads, fortunately all of which were paved, makes (with some adjustment for terrain) a beeline from Santa Maria to the Cajon Pass above San Bernardino and Riverside, running along the edge of the mountains, most of which is marked by the San Andreas Fault (thus the beeline), first along the ridgeline over the gaping canyons opening onto the San Joaquin Valley far below, then, after you cross I-5 at the top of the Tejon Pass, along the edge of the high desert (of Edwards AFB and the "Restless" episode of Buffy fame). It was gorgeous scenery, mostly on roads I'd never taken before, and despite the meanderings of the route it got me there, after a 9 am start, and with a break for lunch at Gorman (the logical stop), right on time.