Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the annual year-end post

It's not been a good year, symbolized by the fact that I didn't go anywhere for the first three months, except constantly back and forth within a small radius. The year having begun with the death of a beloved cat, it then became far grimmer with the death of a beloved mother. Also there have been dead friends, and even more dead friends-of-friends. We do have a new and delightful cat, but other losses could not be so repaired. I did get to go to a wedding, but that turned out bittersweet. It's not been a good year. Did I say that?

And then I wrote ...

Nevertheless, some stuff got done. Volume 11 of Tolkien Studies was done ... very late ... the hard copies have just turned up, and reviewers will have their copies shipped out by slow boat very soon. I had three hard-copy articles published: a tribute to Tom Shippey in his festschrift, which I wrote about five years ago; a hefty article on Tolkien and his contemporaries for a large academic volume, which I wrote in a tearing hurry in the summer of 2013; and a short article on C.S. Lewis's opinion of Oxford's great entrepreneur, Lord Nuffield, which I wrote in early 2014, presented at Mythcon, and had published in CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, in July. I've been nibbling at another Tolkien article for a conference I'm attending in April, but that's been about it for fantasy scholarship, though my review of Hobbit III has, in its Blogspot version, become the most-read post I've ever put there, largely through my linking to it on the Tolkien Society blog.

On the other hand, I had 32 concert reviews and other articles on local music-making published in my two venues, San Francisco Classical Voice and the San Mateo Daily Journal. That's kept me very active and there's no sign of a letup impending. These included the challenges of reviewing a cycle of all six Bartók quartets, which I hardly claim to find comprehensible; and Mahler's Ninth Symphony, which I hardly claim to find tolerable. But the results were some of my better work of the year, and as a job it's a great gig to have. I got to two music symposia, one of which I covered for SFCV; two sf/fantasy conferences, Potlatch and Mythcon, and was introduced to the Popular Culture Association, which I may well stick with.

And then I went ..

Cities I’ve stayed in this year away from home:

Hillsdale IL
Springfield IL
Galesburg IL
Chicago IL
Ashland OR (twice)
Seattle WA
Santa Maria CA
Glendora CA
San Diego CA
Greenbelt MD
Boston MA
Norton MA
Healdsburg CA
Eureka CA
Redding CA
Napa CA

Of the 17 stays (36 nights), 8 stays (21 nights) were with B. accompanying me. That is a good percentage. This was an unusual year in that it included more visits to other cities within my own state than is typical. It’s also unusual in that I probably have never before traveled to as many states in one year that I didn’t stay overnight in, and certainly not within such a brief time. They were IA, MO, DE, PA, NJ, NY, CT, and RI, the first two of these being in an hour spent at the corner where they meet IL, and the last six being in one day’s unbroken ride on Amtrak.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

more from the wayback machine

Season of the Witch by David Talbot (Free Press, 2012)
Somebody, possibly on LJ, gave a tempered recommendation of this book, and I put it down for reserve at the library. That was long enough ago that I'd completely forgotten what I'd ordered when it came in. It's a history of San Francisco from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, a period I largely remember, told in mostly separable chapters on various topics. These jump around a lot: you get DiFi trying to put the city back together after the Moscone-Milk assassinations; then you get the 49ers' first championship season; then you get AIDS. What the hey? It doesn't feel like a mixed bag, which is what life was actually like; it feels like a bunch of separate bags.

Talbot is a very fluid writer, but not always evocative, and the chapters on the 60s rock scene at the beginning are the least so. I read this book sort of backwards, which was probably a good idea. Talbot tends to oversimplify and to push theses though he allows evidence that it ain't that simple. He believes that DiFi was a good mayor by progressive standards, though he admits she did some horrid things. He seems absolutely convinced that Patty Hearst was lying through her teeth at the SLA when she claimed to convert, to persuade them not to kill her, and that she stuck with the Harrises after the massacre only because it had convinced her the cops would gun her down on sight. But Talbot has to admit this doesn't explain her revolutionary solidarity behavior during the trial.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
This movie is being removed from Netflix at the end of the month (I wish they wouldn't do that; are they out of space?), so I decided to watch it now, though I didn't finish it; it was just too embarrassing. Embarrassing for the characters, I mean; I don't enjoy watching people being discomfited like that. And embarrassing to watch now, because of societal changes. It is well-made and well-acted, not a given with movies that old, no matter how renowned they are. And it takes place in San Francisco, with some great period shots over the opening credits.

What feels quaint, or at least I hope it does, is how stunned everyone else is at the prospect of an inter-racial marriage. And when Spencer Tracy, as the bride's father, asks Sidney Poitier, as his prospective son-in-law, whether the couple have considered the problems their children will have, I was already thinking of our mixed-race president before Poitier replies that his fiancee is convinced they'll all grow up to be Presidents of the United States. If only they knew!

Actually, if I were Tracy's character, I'd be at least as concerned that my unworldly (by the looks of it) 23-year-old daughter was insisting on marrying right away a widower 15 years her senior whom she only met ten days ago, as by the color of his skin. But Tracy can't say that, because it'd look as if he was only using the other concerns as a mask for a racial one.

Monday, December 29, 2014

is this trip necessary?

A less-good literary history than yesterday's set. I posted this on Amazon, and expect to hear from the author, who's vigilant about reading and responding to his bad reviews.

Bill Steigerwald, Dogging Steinbeck (Fourth River Press, 2012)
Retired reporter decides to re-create John Steinbeck's cross-country journey from Travels with Charley 50 years later. In the course of his pre-travel research, and then more fully when he actually takes the trip, Steigerwald determines that Steinbeck's book is - he doesn't mince words here - a "fraud."

My goodness! What did Steinbeck do to earn so stern a denunciation? Did he not actually take the trip at all? That's what "fraud" would mean to me. No, he took it, and he went where he said he did. Already the claim looks over-the-top. Are many of his conversations with locals fictionalized? Probably yes, but Steigerwald acknowledges that Steinbeck scholarship has suspected that for a long time; it's not the blinding revelation that Steigerwald claims it is.

You have to get to the end of Dogging Steinbeck to discover the answer as to what bugs Steigerwald so. The problem is that Steigerwald had this image in his head of Steinbeck driving all around the country without a break, with no-one but his dog for company, sleeping every night in his lonely camper by the side of the road.

But Steigerwald has been cruelly disillusioned. Steinbeck took breaks for visits with relatives. He also stayed over in a couple big-city hotels, and spent some nights on the road in motels. He had his wife with him for one leg of the journey, and a friend for another.

That does take away from the purity of the experience, but that also means that Steigerwald wasn't paying much attention to Travels when he formed that image, though he does make a close, accurate reading of the book here. Steinbeck actually mentions three of those breaks in Travels, though he minimized them and left some out. He mentions staying in motels. He doesn't mention his wife going along for part of the ride, but it turns out that was in his manuscript; it was his editors who took it out, so they're responsible for that bit of meddling. Steigerwald is rather indignant that Steinbeck wearied of the trip long before it was over; but, again, that's no surprise, as that's quite clear from Travels itself.

Steinbeck's trip totaled 75 days, including all the time off with relatives. For purposes of that mental image, Steigerwald doesn't count days Steinbeck had another human with him. He doesn't count nights in motels or in houses. He doesn't count nights Steinbeck slept in the camper but there were other people around - like at a truck stop. Really. That's not good enough for Steigerwald's romantic mental image of the lonely traveler. He says that leaves a maximum of 9 nights in which Steinbeck had a sufficiently rigorous traveling experience.

OK, so Travels with Charley romanticizes and oversimplifies the journey, but is that fraud, really? The way that James Frey or Margaret Seltzer were frauds? I can't see it. Steigerwald is excessively severe in his expectations. He's indignant at the way Steinbeck scholars and the mainstream media have shrugged off what he considers his bombshell revelation, but there's just not that much here.

Nor is this book really a model of a literary detective story, for all of Steigerwald's research. He wants Steinbeck lonely, but then holds it against him if he is. He declares himself entirely skeptical of any statements in Travels with Charley unless they're verified, but he considers Steinbeck's letters home from the road to be verification. He doesn't apply his skepticism to interviewees too young to remember it personally, scratching their heads trying to remember anything their deceased innkeeper parents might have said about this writer guy who stopped over for a night half a century ago. And then, when he confirms that Steinbeck spent a night at an expensive resort hotel in New Hampshire, and didn't mention it in Travels, and didn't even have any folksy conversations with locals while he was there, he thinks he's got the fraudster dead to rights!

On top of this, Steigerwald is also a whiny libertarian (Not all libertarians are whiny. He is, though) who's speechless with astonishment when a New Deal liberal like Steinbeck turns out to support civil liberties. Who'd have thought it?

However, Steigerwald is a far better writer than his level of crankiness would lead you to expect, and his book is, at least, entertaining reading, though it gets a bit muddled in distinguishing between what Travels says and what Steinbeck actually did. I had to make my own spreadsheet to figure out the allocation of days that Steigerwald presents in his final verdict, and even then I'm not sure if I got his calculations correct.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

two of the best books I read this year

They're both literary history: that is, they're about literature, but instead of containing the internal analysis of literary criticism, they are organized as histories of their topics, with emphasis on the larger social significance of the stories they tell.

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
This history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Concentrates on proponents of Bacon and Oxford; otherwise it'd be too long and boring. Much on not only the serious advocates of these theories, but also on famous supporters, like Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud, whose biographers have tended to overlook this embarrassing hobby of their renowned subjects.

Shapiro doesn't believe in any of the alternative authors: his interest is in what makes others so eager to embrace them. He attributes it to a gut belief that authors can only really write autobiographically (Mark Twain, who actually did so write, was a pioneer believer in the universality of this notion) and who find William Shakespeare's life too pedestrian or sketchily recorded to suit, so they turn to someone with a more romantic career. Put this way, the fallacy should be obvious; but Shapiro puts the ultimate blame on romantic-minded Stratfordians, who first tried tying the author's life to his works this way. But the premise being fallacious, the results fit so badly that readers who accepted the premise rejected the conclusion.

The book concludes with some more general arguments in the defense: 1) of course it's possible for authors to write convincingly of matters outside their close personal experience; 2) in an era when most plays, if published at all, were issued anonymously, it made no sense for a playwright to adopt a pseudonym; 3) it would have been even more pointless, as well as dangerous, for the author to hide himself from official censure behind the name of a real-life man of the theatre; 4) the plays were designed for the skills of the acting company at the date of writing, so the author had to have been intimately familiar with this, and they couldn't have been stored up for years in advance. It turns out the earliest Oxfordians were dimly aware of the problem caused by Oxford's death long before many of the plays were produced, and proposed that many of them were heavily re-written for production (by whom?) and that some, notably The Tempest, were not by Oxford at all!

Jeff Smith, The Presidents We Imagine (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)
I picked this up at the Popular Culture Association conference. The subtitle is "Two Centuries of White House fictions on the page, on the stage, onscreen, and online," but it's not just a staggeringly comprehensive survey of depictions of fictional presidents and novelization/dramatizations of real presidents, though it is that. Smith may have been the first person in ninety years actually to have read Philip Dru, Administrator, the utopian fantasy of Woodrow Wilson's éminence grise, Col. House, and the description of it here is thorough enough to spare anyone else the trouble.

But that's incidental. Smith is from a business school, not an English department, and his theme is what these stories say about our image of the President, and accordingly he's even more fascinating on the real images of real presidents. A quick survey of that exacting sub-genre, the memoirs of presidential mistresses, is particularly withering, as with Smith's summation of JFK's Judith Campbell Exner: "The impossibility of true love with a powerful, married, and very preoccupied man does not make her wistful so much as just irritated." Even more fascinating are his accounts of vertigo-inducing projects to make presidential reality fit fiction: the pulling up of Lincoln, poorly regarded in his lifetime even by his allies, into a holy martyr after his assassination, and the jury-rigging of his earlier life, so unlike Washingtonian heroics, to fit this new image; and the desperate attempts of the press to fit George W. Bush's actions on 9/11 into the recently-established frame of Action Movie President (Independence Day, Air Force One). Bush himself was quicker than many of his advisers to realize he had to start posturing this way, because it's what people expected.

Which makes it even more interesting that this is not what they used to expect. Smith recounts that in previous grave crises, Americans looked to the government in general to lead them, and not to the President in particular. Andrew Johnson was barely mentioned in news reports of the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination, and the first wire stories on Pearl Harbor featured stirring statements by the Attorney General and Congressional leaders; nobody demanded an immediate appearance by the President. This book is history through popular imagery at its finest.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I like to be in America

In keeping with my early New Year's resolution to share with you more of my favorite YouTube videos, and in honor of Dave Letterman's impending retirement, here's the women of the 2009 revival of West Side Story on Letterman's show, performing "America" with such verve that Dave reacts as if he's about to be run over when one of them accidentally bumps into him as he's coming over to congratulate them after the number.

concert review: Musica Pacifica

I volunteered to review this one. I'm not sure why I did, unless if it were to get some sort of December review in the Daily Journal: my goal is to write for them about once a month.

It wasn't easy: early music is the most difficult kind to review, and I didn't really try very hard. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable concert, with good performers and at least moderately interesting music. My seating neighbors had never heard - or heard of - the Biber Mystery Sonatas before and were duly impressed.

I managed to irritate the violinist after the concert in the course of asking some technical questions about her performance. She took my questions as my telling her about her own specialty. I suspect this communication difficulty lies behind a lot of the world's charges of "mansplaining": it's particularly common among aspies, not that I am one, to lay out your own understanding of a topic so that you can be corrected on anything you got wrong. And you can try to frame it so as to communicate that you're taking that approach, but that's not always clear either.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Into the Woods, on camera

Remember all those articles about how the film was going to dump half the songs and change the entire plot around? Forget those; they didn't do any of that. There was a fair amount cut, mostly the bulk of the framing structure, although the result seemed just as long as a stage production, maybe more so. Perhaps because there was no intermission. A few other pieces, like the reprise of "Agony", were also cut: I could see why, as it doesn't really advance the plot, though it tells a lot about character - as proven by the fact that, without it, the prince's dalliance with the baker's wife (yes, they left that in) seems slightly bizarre and out of the blue.

The singing was ... OK. These people are actors who sing, not singers who act. And the acting? That was ... OK, too. Christine Baranski as the wicked stepmother was the only really outstanding performance. On the other hand, nobody was bad, except that Johnny Depp as the wolf was from some different movie. If I'd seen these folks in a stage production, I would have found it satisfying but not dazzling, as the Ashland stage production was.

What was good was the recording and the staging. The sound quality was excellent: voices and orchestra both clear and finely mixed. There's an Oscar category for this type of work, and this movie deserves one. The camera whirred around a fair amount, but not too excessively, and the shot construction of the songs where several people are simultaneously singing while located in different places was very well done. The real-woods surroundings didn't add to the magic of the stage show, but they didn't take away from it either.

Most of the story takes place at night, so just about everything was blue all the time. Some of the off-stage action is pictured, including the inside of the wolf (eww), making the omission of others, such as the land of the giants or the prince's first visit to Rapunzel, all the more conspicuous. The witch (Meryl Streep, being Streepy) after her transformation looks not glamorous but like Scary Margaret Thatcher (if that's not redundant), that being of course a part that Streep has played recently.

Despite the vocal limitations, it conveys what makes the songs good, even if it's iffier about the overall shape of the show. If you don't know the stage show, and you see this movie, I hope you'll be encouraged to take it on stage sometime; and if not, please don't dismiss the stage show because of it.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

on driving around to see Christmas lights

and finding a nativity scene with certain additions:

"Nothing says 'Christmas in Bethlehem' like a penguin in a Santa hat." - B.

Christmas party

When B. went down to feed the hungry cats this morning, the lid came off the canister and cat food spilled all over the floor.

As she reported it to me, "The cats thought it was Christmas!"

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

a theological observation

C.S. Lewis divided Christmas into three parts: 1) "a religious festival, important and obligatory for Christians, but of no interest to anyone else"; 2) "a popular holiday ... I much approve of merry-making, but I see no reason why I should volunteer views as to how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends"; 3) "the commercial racket ... merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things."

He also wrote a hilarious pastiche of Herodotus describing a country (obviously the modern UK) which celebrates two simultaneous holidays, Christmas and "Exmas", the former a quiet religious celebration observed only by a few, and the latter a vast lunacy that nobody enjoys but everyone considers obligatory. That the two are actually the same, the writer considers not credible.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hanukkah dinner

While my mother was living, it was tradition to have her over for dinner each year at this time, for which I'd make the same traditional menu. (When we met to dine on other occasions, we usually went out.) Now that she's gone, we're transferring the tradition to B's sister G. and her husband M. Except that, instead of their coming here, we went to their house. Less cleaning up for us, less cat allergy for G.

But I still cooked, and made the same traditional meal. I e-mailed G. a complete list of all the pots and pans and measuring tools and utensils and all that I'd need for cooking and serving, and she laid them all out on the counter so that I wouldn't have to go hunting for them in unfamiliar cabinets, and I introduced my gentile relatives to gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, and latkes, none of which they'd ever encountered before. I had to explain what they all were (the explanation of matzo balls began with a reference to the Exodus ...), and, surprise, they liked them. M., a true trencherman, was particularly taken with the latkes, though to him fried potato evokes breakfast, and even the gefilte fish, if it had enough horseradish on it. Although I'd wanted to try this experiment, I would have expected that non-Jews would be as repulsed by gefilte fish as non-Americans usually are by root beer.

Cooking on somebody else's stove is like driving somebody else's car. It can be disconcertingly different, even if the rules are the same. This was the first time I'd used a gas stove that took longer to boil a pot of water than an electric stove does, though I may be biased by having a very fast stove at home (and an even faster oven, which requires great caution and vigilance).

After dinner (which also included steamed broccoli, our favorite veggie) came the exchange of presents - B's from me was the new Brocelïande album, a Christmasy item, but by that token one best enjoyed during the season, before Christmas arrives - and then playing dreidel with chocolate gelt. Now, it is a strange thing, but though dreidels were a frequent decoration of my childhood Hanukkahs, and I knew the rules for the game, I cannot recall ever having actually played it before. Of this game I will note only two things: 1) Some dreidels are designed to be spun easily and some are not; 2) Somebody should really conduct an "honest dreidel" test the way they've done honest coin tests, to see if coins really do come out 50% heads and 50% tails.

We'll do this again next year, and see if we can get any of G. and M.'s offspring to come.

Friday, December 19, 2014

gentlemen's disagreement

I was waiting at the public library reference desk. The librarian had gone off to fetch something for me from the back room. Another man came up, evidently in search of assistance. "Merry Christmas," he said to me, in a more aggressive tone of voice than the sentiment would indicate. I suspected that he was one of those aggrieved religious partisans who wanted to see if I'd take offense.

As I believe that the point of saying something generic like "Happy Holidays" is to show common politeness towards strangers whose choice of holiday you do not know, and as he had certainly proclaimed his choice of holiday, I had no problem in replying "And Merry Christmas to you." (Had I wanted to be nasty, I could have said, "Happy Kwanzaa." He was, of course, white, as am I.) He then made a remark about the string of lights running across the front of the desk, and I was just about to continue the conversation in the form of commenting on the fun of going out in the evenings in search of gaudy displays, when he picked up one from a stack of informative bookmarks on the desk.

"Affordable Care Act," he read from the bookmark. "Is there such a thing?" he asked with his aggressive tone. I read this as a further weak attempt to bait me, the first having failed so spectacularly, but responded as if it were a mere confession of ignorance. "Of course there is," I said. "You should read the news."

At this moment, the librarian returned, and I was spared further colloquy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

movie review: The Battle of Between Four and Seven Armies

The best literary description of The Battle of the Five Armies is not by J.R.R. Tolkien, but by Dr. Seuss.
What do you know about tweetle beetles? Well ...
When tweetle beetles fight, it's called a tweetle beetle battle.
And when they battle in a puddle, it's a tweetle beetle puddle battle.
AND when tweetle beetles battle with paddles in a puddle, they call it a tweetle beetle puddle paddle battle.
Having used up the rest of The Hobbit in his previous movies, Peter Jackson had nothing left for this one except six chapters, some 50 pages, largely occupied by Smaug's attack on Laketown, the siege of Erebor, and the titular battle. We know how much he likes battles, so end to (nearly) end nonstop battle this movie is. So it's like tweetle beetles in that we don't see the characters do much of anything but battle and prepare for battle. There's also paddles and a puddle for good measure. It's also like the tweetle beetle battle in being a giant muddle.

These six chapters of the book include four songs. There are no songs in this movie. There is no consideration of audience knowledge, either. Viewers who aren't familiar with the book had better remember the earlier movies pretty well if they hope to make any sense at all of most of this. Nor is the title ever explained. In the book the five armies include the Wolves. There are no wolves here, so the uninformed viewer may be baffled about the number. The orcs have two separate armies; does that count? Is Thorin's band a separate army? How about the Eagles? So it could be any number from four to seven.

In the previous movie, Jackson threw the entire relevant chapters of the book away, leaving only the character names and a paragraph's worth of plot structure. He's nowhere near so cavalier in this one, so the changes clang more. I started out by noting that the people of Laketown evidently believe they're located on the River Anduin, which is actually on the other side of Mirkwood; that the arguments in the conflict over who gets the treasure are sufficiently tweaked that I predict it will confuse future students of the book in the way Jackson has confused them over Aragorn's attitude towards the kingship; and that, when Galadriel rescues Gandalf and Radagast from Dol Guldur - OK, that's another change - she vamps out, the way she did in Jackson's Fellowship, and, if I'm reading the imagery accurately, disembodies the Necromancer, leaving only the vaginal slit famous from the LotR movies. I'd guess that somebody told Jackson he had been in error in depicting Sauron as a helpless disembodied eyeball, so he has concocted this explanation as to how Sauron got that way.

After that I stopped keeping track, though it was hard to miss the Elven-king's parting advice to Legolas to seek out a Ranger called Strider, although at this point in Tolkien's history he was still a ten-year-old boy in Rivendell called Estel. Bilbo, very much a supporting character in this story - what a waste of Martin Freeman's considerable talents - gets to say "The Eagles are coming," although not until long after they'd dramatically arrived, and he mutters it without anybody within earshot, so as a dramatization of one of the great "book moments" it lacks effectiveness.

Basically, book fans trying to find moments to squee in delight at will feel like they're trying to suck through a straw at an emptied glass. Bard doesn't apostrophize his black arrow. The language of the negotiations at the Gate is softened into pudding. Bilbo's farewell to Thorin has most of the words, plus some unnecessary ones, but the context of the scene is entirely different, so that didn't work as a "book moment" either.

As a wall-to-wall battle movie, I found it tiresome. All the armies move in mechanized lockstep unison, even the Elves putting their arrows away or the Dwarves hastily erecting a wall of shields. Scenes like this dwell in the Uncanny Valley. The Orcs outweigh the good guys so massively that in order to keep some kind of equilibrium, they have to be ridiculously easy to kill. The Elven-king swipes the heads off a whole line of them with one stroke while they're clinging to the antlers of his moose (heroes riding ridiculous choices of animals is another continuing theme in this movie), without even damaging the antlers. This applies until the painfully prolonged Single Combat Warrior battles against the monster commanders Azog and Bolg (Azog and Bolg, eh? Book fans, shake your heads again), who are, by contrast, ridiculously difficult to kill, so it goes on and on. Legolas climbs up rocks falling through the air. "Oh, come on," in the words of Dain finding that the first orc army has entered the battlefield by tunneling through the mountains with the help of giant Were-worms, the ones mentioned by Bilbo back in chapter one. As Jonathan Fischer points out, Dain says this so that you don't have to.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

cat column

There's been big changes in our cat culture here lately, and if they think it's because of the visit they paid to the vet yesterday (always a traumatic occasion), they're right.

Maia had been eating by grazing at an always-filled bowl on the counter in the upstairs bath, where we'd kept it ever since that was the room we kept her in for a week when we first got her, so she knew food was there, and Pippin wouldn't find it.

Meanwhile Pippin was on a strict diet, so we fed him twice a day, and since Maia (like Pandora before her) would nudge her way into his food despite having her own, and he is too much of a giant wuss to stop her, I'd developed the practice of using Pippin's feeding time as Maia's playtime, enough so that Maia came to know to wait under the cat tree as I put Pippin's bowl out, because that meant the delectable peacock feather would soon make an appearance. (I am still holding back the laser pointer until she gets older and slower, because the laser pointer is the turbo-charged crack of cat toys.)

But now the vet says that Maia could use a bit of a diet too, a bit of a surprise since she's never eaten all that much, but now Pippin's mealtime is hers too. Pippin eats on a blanket by the piano bench, where we originally put his food in a futile attempt to keep it away from Pandora whose food was in the kitchen, and when Maia isn't playing and isn't stealing his food she likes to watch him from above. So now we put her food on top of the piano bench, where again Pippin is unlikely to notice it. It took Maia a few days to figure out that Pippin's foodtime was now her foodtime too, but again she eats a little and goes away.

It does mean that Maia's playtime has been moved away from mealtimes, and she lets me know when she'd like to play by flopping on the floor, usually upstairs, where I've taken to petting her with my foot. We then either play on the cat tree downstairs, or I stand on the staircase and drag the feather across the carpet on the upstairs landing, which she also loves.

The only catch is that it turns out that Pippin, who would like more food than he gets, associates Maia's playtime with his mealtime as firmly as Maia had associated them the other way around, and when I play with her he comes up and gives a "well, are you going to feed me?" look.

Monday, December 15, 2014

concert review: International Orange Chorale

I'm really glad I went to the effort of attending this succinct choral concert at an acoustically excellent church in the City.

Though they're called the International Orange Chorale, they wear black on stage. (Sorry, Orange Mike.) The program says it's a volunteer group, but the voices are impressively professional in quality.

Ten pieces, all unaccompanied, none longer than about 8 minutes, 9 of them written in the past 5 years for this ensemble and the other about 15 years old. All ten of the composers (8 men, 2 women; at least four involved with the choir and 2 others local and present) are now aged between 28 and 44; the chorus members all looked within that age range as well, and so did most of the audience.

One of the two composers I'd previously heard of was Caroline Shaw, and I certainly welcomed my first live encounter with her eerie post-minimalist music. I found that I liked the pieces pretty much to the extent that they departed from straightforward text settings. That made Shaw's Fly Away I, which uses phased buildups from rhythmic monotones into rich consonant harmony to set chopped-up phrases from a hymn tune; Paanyaya 3 by Robin Estrada, which builds up cross-rhythms over percussive use of the phonemes in the Tagalog text; and Nico Muhly's Lord Heare My Prayer Instantly, a really imaginative setting of a couple of Psalm verses, the best pieces on the program.

But even the more straight-through text settings, many of them of renowned poets, were often attractive, varying mostly in the amount of dissonance they provided. Most consonant was Chorale director Zane Fiala's Cosmos, setting a chunk of Carl Sagan's narration with some VW-like harmonies here and there. Most dissonant was Chorale member Elizabeth Kimble's setting of Whitman's The Unknown Region. Kimble says in the program notes that what this poem evokes about the unknown for her is the fear of it, that it's "huge and terrifying." And then she conveys this through high, screechy, intense dissonance. Ouch.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale

This chorus continues to get better under Elena Sharkova's direction. And with Karen S. as a member, they can't lose.

This was their Christmas concert, held in the California Theatre instead of the Mission - a really good idea - and with a very small orchestra - also a good idea. The centerpiece was John Rutter's Magnificat, probably the most outright cheerful large-scale piece of religious choral music I've ever heard. Rutter doesn't have the spiritual intensity of Tavener or the sheer beauty of Lauridsen, but he does have warmth and geniality. He's also a fully competent choral-orchestral composer. He knows how to handle both ensembles with clarity and keep them from getting in each other's way. The chorus writing is mostly smooth, the orchestral rather jangly, yet they fit.

Unfortunately the soprano chosen as soloist had an approach to pitch of "I wonder as I wander," but otherwise, good show from both ensembles.

Most of the remainder of the program was carols and carol medleys by or arranged by English composers. More Rutter, some Holst and VW and John Gardner. Especially cherishable for Holst's setting of Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," my choice of most beautiful carol ever, and VW's rumpus arrangement of the Wassail song.

Near the end, the program got a bit fancier and more American with an old Chanticleer medley of spirituals, which the chorus managed to give a little honest swing to, and a setting of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," something I'd never heard before in musical form. According to Wikipedia the music is by one Ken Darby, though this name isn't credited in the concert's program. It adds a final verse, an altered reprise of the opening. The song was rendered with a fair amount of acting out, including having individual choristers leap up every time St. Nick mentions the name of one of his reindeer.

A few audience singalongs of well-known carols, also, with an assistant conductor - a boy of about 12 named Leo, a student of Sharkova's I guess, with lots of presence vocally but not so much physically - to lead the audience, who didn't pay as much attention to him as they should have.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Silly links:

An impressively clever (and well-researched) Tolkien satire.

11 Types of Young-Adult Novels You Totally Miss. Gets a little overgeneralized near the end when it reaches "fantasy" and "science fiction", but umph there are a few zingers earlier on.

Diet & Fitness Books of the Bible. Because it's about time someone suggested that Pilates is the plural of Pontius Pilate. What else could it be?

Pride and Prejudice in Strine. Is this realistic, or just the antipodean equivalent of Valley Girl?

And a serious one:

Pilotless airplanes and what happens when someone needs to pilot them. Replace "airplane" with "car" and "pilot" with "driver" and this is our future on the roads. Has anyone considered that wrinkle yet?

And a freebie:

Buy online a ticket to the Hobbit movie and they'll give you a free Nook copy of the book. Assuming you still have a Nook.

Friday, December 12, 2014

graceless and pointless

[semi-spoilers ahead]

B. and I have been watching this mini-series, Gracepoint, starring David Tennant of Dr. Who and Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad as a pair of detectives investigating a boy's murder in a small town on the Northern California coast (played by a small town on Vancouver Island, where the filming is cheaper). I'm glad it was only ten episodes. This meant I knew it was going to end, and there was a limit to how high they could pile the plot twists.

I'm curious if the procedures here are at all typical of contemporary murder-mystery storytelling, because I don't read much in that genre, and if it's like this, it isn't encouraging me to. But my limited experience suggests it is.

The way you spin a story like this out to ten episodes is by having suspicion fall on various plausible characters sequentially, with everyone involved turning on them savagely. Then have that character clear themselves by revealing a terrible personal secret. Added points if it's something that's long cast a hidden shadow over them but of which they are actually innocent. That is, at least by their own account. Further added points if you can get one of the detectives to confess such a secret too, even without having been a suspect.

Start wrapping the show up two or three episodes before the end by having a couple witnesses show up with useful data that, if they'd only bothered to mention it earlier - and there's no obviously compelling reason why they shouldn't have - the show would have been a lot shorter.

Have the most logical and compelling suspect in custody by the end of the penultimate episode, but hint in the previews for the finale that there's one more big twist to come. The experienced mystery reader will immediately recognize this as meaning that it's time for what was known in the era of the classic British cozies as "the butler did it": that is, the true culprit will turn out to be the most overlooked major character on whom no suspicion has yet fallen, just because nobody will suspect them - except the viewer, who's read stories like this before.

Sure enough, begin the last episode with the abrupt confession of this person, which is less plausible and generally makes less sense than any of the previous wrong theories, and so out of character that it will feel like they've switched out actors for the part. Leave as many as possible of the other evidentiary puzzles unexplained. (There's time for one last twist-within-a-twist, too, but it only makes the problem worse.) CYA by having everybody say the culprit's behavior doesn't make any sense. Have the culprit say this. Doesn't help. A promising story ends like a wet rag, because you forgot to think up the explanation before you wrote the script.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

cat in a rainstorm

We braved the storm to take the cats to the vet today.

The storm, which rolled in from the North Pacific, was built up by the media as some kind of epic coming of the apocalypse, and it scared several school districts into pre-emptive cancelling of classes. Actually, it was just a normal California winter storm: a little flooding in low spots, a lot of traffic jams, and just sopping wet everywhere. (California rain tends to be what people used to cloudbursts would consider an intense drizzle: it just lasts all day.) The only difference is, this is the first one like it we've had in over two years, and folks forget.

[ETA: They even cancelled this evening's symphony concert. Is this kind of cowering the result of too much fear of terrorism or something? I've gone up to plenty of symphony concerts in weather as bad as this.]

Pippin remembered what it meant when we reached for him, and went to ground in the closet, from which he was easily retrieved. This was Maia's first vet visit, but, alas, she too could not be beguiled, and ran off to hide in various successive corners. We'd had all the room doors shut, but eventually opened a bathroom door, because a cat in avoidance of being caught can usually be counted to dart into a bathroom if one is available, which is a bad strategic move on the cat's part.

Nobody meowed on the drive, unlike the late Pandora who would wail piteously. They're healthy; we're going to try brushing Maia's teeth (as if she'll let us); and also try to teach her to eat regular meals instead of grazing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

reviews: play, concert, blank space

1. Wandered down to the local high school because they were producing Noises Off, one of our favorite plays. It was, perforce, a high school production. After the first act, students behind us who hadn't seen it before were asking each other, "Is this supposed to be funny?", and we were tired enough that we considered just going home. But I'm glad we stayed, because the remaining two acts got successively better, nonwithstanding major rewrites both intentional and apparently unintentional of the script. The student director played, not the director of the play-within-the-play, but the stagehand, who consequently - in a manner familiar to me from a production of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in which the choreographer danced Mercutio - became a far more prominent character and the most competent one of the whole hapless bunch.

2. Symphony Silicon Valley played Bruckner's Fourth. Oh yes, I had to hear that. It started out cold, but both the orchestra and conductor Tatsuya Shimono rapidly warmed up and swam beautifully. Great sound, adjusted for the fact that I was in the worst section of the house. The oddest-sounding violinist I know, Mayuko Kamio, brought a light Mozartean edition of her peculiar tone quality to Mozart's "Turkish" concerto. This was pretty good too, but turned out to be just a curtain-raiser for her encore, an arrangement of a work that I know well, but was so not expecting to hear in this context that it took me a bit to recognize it. It was Schubert's Erlkönig, the entire piano and vocal parts stuffed into the hands of one violin. What I didn't know was who had the gall to arrange it, but this was easily researched online: it was a 19C virtuoso named H.W. Ernst.

Kamio just tore the pants off this thing, an amazing performance. There are others online, but I'm not going to link because they're not a patch on hers. I will, however, direct you to the score (pdf), decorated with double stops, triple stops, yea even quadruple stops, and which should give a good idea of what it's supposed to sound like.

I reviewed this, but a new copy editor tore it apart and made hash out of it. I managed to get the more serious damage undone, but I no longer have warm thoughts of this review.

3. The other thing I should have done last weekend was attend the annual Reading and Eating Meeting of Khazad-dûm, the local Mythopoeic Society group. Except for possibly one or two years when I was in Seattle, I've been to each one of these for 40 years now. We eat a potluck dinner and then sit around the fire reading stories. But not this year, because it was cancelled at nearly the last minute due to serious illness in the hosting house. Not the contagious kind, but bad enough that having people over was not on. I hope this is not the end.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

a school for wizards

A school for wizards, how original, was many people's original reaction to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. And over there in a corner was Ursula K. Le Guin, waving her hand and saying, "Excuse me, but I did that back in 1968." Nothing wrong with admiring Rowling's stories or what she did with the concept of such a school, but you can't credit her with being the first to originate it.

What nobody seems to have asked is whether there's any actual relationship between Hogwarts and Roke in Rowling's creative imagination. Nor has anyone to my knowledge brought attention to a relevant datum on this subject that came out a couple years go. In a New Yorker profile of Rowling on the occasion of the publication of The Casual Vacancy, writer Ian Parker interviewed her secondary school English teacher, a man named Steve Eddy, who says that his syllabus for class reading included A Wizard of Earthsea (along with Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a book which I'd say resembles Harry Potter in tone a lot more than anything in Earthsea does). [New Yorker, Oct. 1, 2012, p. 56]

This was when Rowling was aged 11, so it would have been 1976-77.

I loathe the sort of criticism which predetermines that every author's good ideas are borrowed from some other author. And even if Rowling remembered Le Guin's Roke, it doesn't necessarily follow that the idea for Hogwarts came from there. They're quite different places, and the derivation of Hogwarts from a hearty British schoolboy story with the addition of wizards seems far more likely. Nevertheless, just as a datum, let it be recorded: Rowling as a child read, and therefore had access to, Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea.

Monday, December 1, 2014

concert review: Redwood Symphony

One of the things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving is that I was able to write this review for the Daily Journal. I got my editor's agreement in advance to my warning that, if I was going to review Mahler's Ninth, I was going to let it all hang out - all the personal baggage and resentment I bring from all the bad performances (including MTT's) of overlong, tiresome Mahler symphonies I've heard in the past, and I borrowed a little from my past posts on the topic. I'm not sure if SFCV would have let me get away with this approach, and I expect I would have gotten a lot of carping in the comments if I had.

Tim Page said in the critical institute I attended last month that it's permissible for reviewers to bring their personal experience into their reviews, but it's rarely necessary. This time I thought it was necessary. I've given anodyne evaluations in reviews before of established "masterworks" that I secretly hated, but they haven't been the whole concert. I couldn't write an entire review that way, but what could I write? The problem when, say, Joshua Kosman reviews Carmina Burana, is that his distaste for the work clouds his ability to evaluate the performance. I think I avoided that.

The summary of the review I put in my cover letter was, "Hated the work. Loved the performance," which makes the headline the editors put on it a little misleading. It's not the work that even Mahler-haters will love, but the group that played it. I was really wondering if Kujawsky's commitment to the work could convince me it was really all it was cracked up to be, but the sheer badness of late Mahler is beyond such saves. While he convinced me it wasn't a sea of featureless nonsense, it still didn't strike me as beautiful or moving, and I'm utterly convinced that it's twice as long as it needs to be.

Following my own advice to not repeat myself endlessly, I cut out a few choice cracks from the review, notably a realization that, by going on and on long after he's finished, Mahler is the Hubert Humphrey of composers. I'm not sure how many people will still get that reference. (David Frye had a routine on one of his records in which Humphrey's conscience despairs at his own speeches. "Thank God, I think I'm finishing at last ... no, wrong again, Hubert.")

But people often say that Bruckner goes on far longer than necessary, yet I adore his work. What's the difference? Well, part of it is that I simply enjoy listening to what Bruckner is saying. Bruckner is spiritual, Mahler is neurotic. Spiritual music nourishes the soul, while the amount of time I want to spend listening to a neurotic composer expressing his angst is strictly limited. But there's also a deep structural difference. Bruckner moves at a slow pace, so his length is commensurate with his content. Even in his adagios, though, Mahler moves at the faster pace of a more typical composer, and consequently he's finished sooner, or ought to be. Instead, he goes on. His works deserve the criticism I've used of a lot of similarly overblown new music, that it's five pounds of music in a ten-pound bag.