Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recent Good Anime (II)

So, another really good series I watched at about the same time as WHEN THEY CRY is THE STORY OF SAIUNKOKU -- which, ironically, met with a similar fate although the two are unalike in almost every way.* Whereas WHEN THEY CRY is set in a v. specific time and place (the rural village of Hinamizawa, Japan in the month of June 1983), THE STORY OF SAIUNKOKU takes place in an imperial China of the mythical past. Rather than a series of ever-shifting tales, SAIUNKOKU is uses an epic backdrop to tell a very personal story, perhaps in the belief that great deeds ultimately come down to the hard work and personal relationships of individual people.

In brief, this is the story of Shurei Hong, the impoverished daughter of a noble house who agrees to take a position at the imperial court** in order to cause the careless young emperor to bestir himself. She quickly establishes a platonic but intense relationship with the emperor, who inspired by her deep-rooted optimism and an endless capacity for hard work undertakes to begin to actually govern. But successes come with a price, and each victory has consequences that the story embraces and follows up on.

One particularly interesting theme is Shurei's lifelong desire to take the official examination that is the pre-requisite for holding any administrative post -- an exam which women are not eligible to take -- and the emperor's desire to reward her by changing custom and the law to make that exam open to women; a decision with many consequences. The latter parts of the story suffer somewhat by separating the two main characters for long periods of time, but it's still a compelling story as it shows Shurei growing up and making hard choices.***

That's no more than a bare summary, of course; what makes the show worth watching are an appealing cast of likable characters, a compelling story, an interesting setting, and an undefinable something that makes it all stand out from the crowd. You come to care deeply about these people while watching this series. There are also a lot of nice touches, like their using a proverb for each chapter title ("A Frog in the Well Knows Not About the Ocean", "A Genius Can't Better a Hardworking Man").

In short, highly recommended.


current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current anime: CANAAN
*That is, both were overtaken by the collapse of Pioneer/Geneon, which left the US releases of the remainder of each series in limbo. This was particularly egregious in the case of SAIUNKOKU, since WHEN THEY CRY had already given three of its constituate chapters in full and reached its mid-point, while SAIUNKOKU had released only two disks, containing only the first ten episodes out of a total of thirty-nine, barely a quarter of its run. Moreover, while fairly good copies of W.T.C. were available on import, the foreign subtitling of the rest of SAIUNKOKU left much to be desired (for example, changing character's names erratically from episode to episode, so it was hard to figure out exactly who they were talking about). Luckily, once again Funimation came to the rescue, releasing a third disk (ep. 11-15) with a box for holding it with the two already out, plus two later slimpacks that contain all the rest of the series in a form that won't take up too much shelf-space.

**technically as imperial concubine, comforting herself with the (false) reports that the emperor is gay.

***[SPOILER] one good example of the show's avoidance of easy solutions is the long-term solution Shurei eventually comes up with for a province devastated by brigands, scheming nobles, lack of stable government, and scanty resources. Her suggestion? Establish a university, which can draw people (and money) from around the empire but does not require a hospitable climate or fertile soil. Of course, she points out, it may take a century or so for the project to reach fruition, but that's all the more reason to start now.

Monday, December 27, 2010


So, early last month I heard (thanks to Dimitra Fimi, the leading Tolkien scholar in Wales) that a Cardiff bookdealer had an unusual Tolkien associational item for sale: a piece of sheet music by Alfred Tolkien, who seems to have been the cousin of JRRT's grandfather, John Benjamin Tolkien (Sr). The price was more than an impulse buy cd justify, but this seemed like one of those never-to-be-repeated chances, so I decided to take the plunge. And now, thanks to the good offices of a friend in England with whom I trade book-purchases (I buy things for him that are only available over here, he buys things for me that are only available over there*), it's finally arrived in the post today -- a little late (we think the post office mistakenly sent it by boat rather than airmail) but safe and sound.

The piece itself is titled THE PATCHWORK POLKA, "Composed for the Piano-Forte & respectfully dedicated to the Ladies of England by Alfred Tolkien", price two shillings and sixpence. Apparently you cd buy it either at Henry Tolkien's shop in King William Street nr London Bridge, or from J. B. Tolkien in New Street, Birmingham (Henry being Alfred's brother and thus another of JRRT's grandfather's cousins**). This suggests for me that the Tolkiens were already thoroughly Anglicized in circa 1865, when this piece was published. I don't have access to a keyboard, but I'll look forward to trying it out at some point -- although haltingly, since a swift glance convinces me it's far beyond my long-atropied skill at the piano. Rather to my surprise it's in 2/4 time, I having been under the impression that a 'polka' had to be 3/4*** -- not so, a little quick research shows; 2/4 was in fact the usual. Live and learn.

Now, if I cd just find someone with a Tolkien piano to play it on, that wd be something.

--John R.
current reading: TROY AND HOMER by Joachim Latacz, THE COMING OF THE FAIRIES by Conan Doyle
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current anime: CANAAN

*such as, most recently, the Derek Jacobi audiobooks for LETTERS FROM FATHER CHRISTMAS and ROVERANDOM on cd, to supplement the old ones I have on audiocassette.

**and thus JRRT's third cousin, or first cousin twice removed, as some folks prefer to reckon it.

The Wife Says:
"I think I've reached a new high in baffled and bemused tolerance" --JC

CORRECTION (1/2-11): changed "3/3" time to 3/4, thanks to the my error being pointed out in the comments. Many thanks.--JDR

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Bees

So, the unofficial bee-watch continues, as the honeybees surprised me once again by coming up to the hummingbird feeder for at least several hours today (late morning /early afternoon). Only about seven or eight of them at most at any one time, but still impressive, given that we've now reached Midwinter. At this point I'm beginning to think they might actually make it through the winter, keeping to their hive (wherever that is) most of the time and eating their honey to keep them going, then emerging on those days when it gets warm enough and dry enough.

If that weren't strange enough, yesterday I noticed that one patch of the daffodils I planted just before last winter are starting to come up again -- about two months early. And then this morning Janice confirmed that the alders and willows along the creek are just beginning to get that look that precedes their budding for the spring.

In short, Nature outside seems to have concluded that winter came with the snow and ice we had a few weeks ago and has now passed. I'm apprehensive about the fate of those daffodils, given how many months of official winter there still are to go. I guess we'll see. In any case, I'll keep putting out the hummingbird juice and hope it helps.

--John R.

current anime: CANAAN
current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
current reading: TROY & HOMER by Joachim Latacz

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Year in Anime

So, as one of my little year-end projects, I just made up a list of all the anime I have on dvd, thus replacing an old vhs/dvd list from several years back that was never completed and at any rate wd now be badly out of date. It's a longer list than I wd have expected -- almost a hundred titles -- and it's gotten me into a reflective mood of wanting to re-watch some older titles that had drifted onto back shelves. Naturally, I watch a lot more anime than I buy, thanks to Netflix and a local rental shop, but still it's rare that a month goes by without my buying at least one new series (or half-series, since that's how a lot of them are issued these days). These days there's less coming out than during the big anime boom of a decade to a half-decade ago, but there are still plenty of interesting shows being made, some of which reach us in the US sooner and some, alas, later.

Anyway, as part of a winter-organizing (as opposed to a spring cleaning), I recently shifted around the anime so that older and less-rewatched items went downstairs into the Box Room, old favorites that no longer get rewatched as often stayed on the shelves upstairs, and things I'm likely to want to see again sooner rather than later stayed in the living room, where the tv and dvd player are. I'd thought it might be nice to do a 'year-in-anime' review, quickly running through some recommendations, but ran into a problem of determining just when I first watched something. While I once kept in a little notebook a viewing list of what anime I watched when, similar to the reading list I've kept for years, that anime viewing list lapsed years ago. Hence I have to rely on my memory of when I watched what, and I know that in some cases I'm off by a bit -- for instance, both PRINCESS RESURRECTION and KAZE NO STIGMA, which I planned to included, turn out to have actually arrived late in '09. So I think I'll just write up several posts over the next few days, each sharing some recommendations of things I've seen and enjoyed over the last year or two.

I was reminded of this one by recently picking up a two-volume manga which forms a sequel to this story set a generation later. The anime is altogether remarkable for being cute, funny, scary, and deeply disturbing, often in rapid succession. The first disk is a pretty good example. Our point of view character is the new kid in town, a city kid whose parents have moved to a small town deep in the country, where he quickly makes friends with his new classmates. But after a while he begins to notice that the local kids sometimes behave v. strangely, and he learns that the village has a sinister past no one likes to talk about -- people disappearing (sometimes totally, sometimes re-appearing with the occasional discovery of dismembered body parts), the uneasy legacy of an anti-development group that lynched some pro-development residents, what are essentially men-in-black lurking about in sinister vans, and above all a local god's curse that the residents believe must be appeased at all costs. Things become increasingly sinister and unsettling, suddenly crescendoing into a crisis: by the end of the fourth episode, three of the story's main characters are dead.

That wd seem to be that, except that the fifth episode starts a new story arc. Suddenly time rewinds to the start, all the characters are alive again, and a similar story plays out, once again moving from light-hearted hijinxs to horror -- except this time with a different character as villain and a distinctly different explanation for what's going on. This happens over and over again throughout the series: the hero of the first story even becomes the villain (more or less) in a later story-arc, and we sometimes see the same events from strikingly different points of view (for example, two characters are twins who sometimes pose as each other: realizing which is which in a particular scene can completely change its significance). The overall effect is fascinating, and disturbing, and v. impressive.

Unfortunately, this series was orphaned when its US distributor, Pioneer/Geneon, went under mid-way through releasing it (literally, after issuing the first three of six disks), forcing those who, like me, wanted to see how it all came out to resort to buying an import. Luckily it was eventually picked up by Funimation, who completed the series -- although I hear there's a second season which has not been released over here (apparently there was such a fuss that it didn't even finish its initial run on Japanese television), as well as an ova.

So, impressive stuff, but a word of warning: this in genuinely creepy, and one of the story-arcs (the fifth, I think) is particularly brutal -- you might want to consider skipping that one, even though it retells the events of one of the earlier arcs closely (except whereas there people suddenly disappeared, we get to actually see them die one by one in this arc, and it's not pleasant).

--John R.

--current audiobook: HUMAN SMOKE
--current music: The Beatles Christmas Messages

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Aslan Buddha

So, yesterday I saw an article* railing against Liam Neeson for being too open minded. In the course of which, the author accuses the Archbishop of Canterbury of being essentially a Fifth Columnist for Islamic jihad. Here's the link:

Pretty mind-boggling, I thought. There's a good case to be made rebutting Neeson,** but of course to do that you'd have to pay attention to what Neeson actually said, as reported in the following piece:

That is, the voice-actor (a devout Catholic) isn't presuming to speak for the author but simply gave his own opinion. It seems an odd thing to get excited about -- I mean, does any F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar worry about what Rbt Redford might say?

--John R.

* by Ken Blackwell, the Kathleen Harris of the 2004 election

**and also a good one defending his position

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reading Group

So, yesterday our reading group met again for the first time in a long time. We usually break for the summer, when it's hard to get people together because of vacations &c, and this past year all our fall meetings had fallen through. And, to make matters worse, I'd missed the last meeting before that break because I was out of town (in Kalamazoo, at the Medievalist Congress). We have about four to six members, scattered between Redmond and the University District and Queen Anne Hill and Kent, who come most of the time, plus another half-dozen who can only make it once in a while.

This being our annual December party, we didn't have an assigned book but instead pick books for the next few months (sometimes we've tried picking the whole next year's books all in one go, but that rarely works out for us). First, though, we just enjoyed getting together, sipping tea, enjoying book-group snacks, and playing with our host's Most Excellent cat, Max (even Max's shy companion, Maya, made a brief appearance).

After that, we revisited some of the books we wd have discussed had we managed to have the September (WICKED), October (ERAGON), and November (BEREN & LUTHIEN; TURIN) meetings. Wicked we universally found disfavor with: those who had read it all the way through (like Janice) and those who'd given up part-way in (like myself) were united in our bafflement of why people like, and praise, this book. Not only that, but why it had inspired a Broadway musical and given rise to a string of sequels. The idea of retelling a famous story from the villain's point of view, while it's becoming a bit overdone, has its potential, but here the author seemed determined to write a story about an Oz that would be utterly unrecognizable as Oz. The names were the same, but everything that made Oz 'Oz' was gone. I was reminded of LeGuin's famous essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", and thought that here was a case where Elfland had deliberately been remade as Poughkeepsie -- the sense of wonder stripped out so that a dull political tale cd be substituted for it. Seeing this, I understood what the Jackson-bashers feel when they see his LotR films: a sense that he got everything that matters wrong. I think they're completely wrong about Jackson -- who I'd say sometimes screws up the details but does a great job delivering on the essence -- but just for that moment I felt their pain.

ERAGON we dealt with more summarily; the only person who'd read it strongly urged the rest of us not to, and we all pretty much felt inclined to take her advice; sounds pretty much like a mash-up of Tolkien (or Tolk-clones) + McCaffrey.

The Tolkien, on the other hand, we decided is too good to miss, so we decided to roll that over into our first meeting next year (January).

After bantering about several options (LITTLE BIG? -- no!; some Chinese or Japanese classic --where to start?; ARABIAN NIGHTS -- maybe later), we decided on what we'll be reading for the first half of next year:

January (1/16-11): THE STORY OF BEREN & LUTHIEN by J. R. R. Tolkien. From THE SILMARILLION (et al). location: our place in Kent.

February (2/20-11): JOHANNES CABAL -- THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan L. Howard. location: Chez Max.

March (3/20-11): HULDUFOLK 102 (documentary). location: Chris & Andy's

April (4/17-11): JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH by Jules Verne. location: not yet determined

May (5/15-11): WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams. location: not yet determined

June (6/19-11): GILGAMESH -- the translation by Andrew George, not the novelization by Nancy Sandars.

We generally meet on the third Sunday of the month, so if you're anywhere in the Seattle area and enjoy reading & discussing fantasy books, drop us a line.


P.S.: In other news, I was astonished to learn this week that the 'Dragonlance' series has now run its course and ended. At twenty-five years it had a good run, but I'm surprised to hear it's over.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Wife Says

"Christmas is when the faithful demonstrate their piety by demanding the right to violate the 2nd commandment on public property."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dueling Billboards

So, a few days ago I saw the news story about a group of atheists putting up an anti-Xian Xmas message in New York City, apparently in a spot where traffic slows down a lot as people prepare to enter the Lincoln Tunnel. Which has so incensed the Catholic League that they've taken time off from trying to stop people from reading Phillip Pullman and taken out a second billboard, one of those Christ-is-the-reason-for-the-season ones, to counter the message.

Two observations:

First, the atheists' message is self-evidently not 'reasonable', since the majority of people seeing their billboard will not in fact agree with them. So there's a self-imposed limit on how much damage a self-contradictory, smug little message like this can do.

Second, the Catholic League billboard in most contexts wd be so ordinary as to attract no notice -- we all see things like this around all the time. But it's a sad commentary that the League doesn't think God can take care of himself; that the Almighty needs them to rent billboard space. As the article-writer suggested at the end of his piece, there are more Xian uses for that money.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The 'C. S. Lewis Bible'

So, for some reason, this announcement kind of weirds me out. A few weeks ago on amazon I saw pop up an entry for THE C. S. LEWIS BIBLE. At first I thought they might be speaking extravagantly about some reference book to end all reference books about CSL, but no, it's an actual Bible. With C. S. Lewis's comments scattered throughout.

The book's now out, and I still have trouble with the whole idea; it seems like elevating CSL to the status of Holy Writ. The 'St. C.S.' movement was bad enough, but this just feels disturbing on a whole 'nother level. However, I've recently been thinking of picking up 'The Archeology Bible' as a follow-up to the Old Testament audiobook, so maybe I can adjust my expectations enough to come to terms with the idea. So far, it's not proving easy.

In any case, here's a link from the publisher with more information about the book -- note that to their credit they allow one poster to opine that 'Lewis himself wd have been absolutely horrified' without deleting the comment.

And here's another link showing some sample pages, so you can get a better idea how the Lewis material is integrated into the biblical text:

I gather from some passing comments that Douglas Gresham, Lewis's younger stepson, wrote an introduction to this book and that a distinguished list of Lewis scholars contributed to making the selections, but haven't yet seen a copy to confirm this and haven't been able to find that list online.

--John R.

Monday, December 13, 2010

God Willing, and the River Don't RIse

So, yesterday afternoon while I was working away at the desk, buried deep in deadline, the phone rang. Answering it, I found it was the Kent automated Flood Warning system, calling to tell me we had just entered Flood Watch Stage Two. A few minutes later my cell phone rang with the same message, and not long after that they sent me an e-mail to the same effect. So, good news that the system works, but what about Stage One?

Checking the information on the website, I confirmed that this was no cause to panic, though certainly time to pay attention. Essentially Stage One just means the river is high and they're keeping an eye on it. Stage Two means there might be some flooding up near the river's headwaters the other side of Auburn. Still, I went downstairs and made sure all the cat carriers were easy to get at and took a few similar precautions, just in case.

Then this morning came another round of calls at seven a.m., this time to tell me the river had reached Stage Three. Which means that areas that flood when there's a ton of rain, like a stretch alongside a pumpkin patch on the West Valley Hwy south of Kent, are either flooding or probably soon will. Still no reason to panic, but time to pay close attention.

Luckily, we're not at Stage Four, which is where things get bad -- that is, somewhere a levee cd give way and things cd really get wet. Having made a side-trip to check on the river a few miles downstream of us when running an errand this afternoon, I cd see it's v. high and it wdn't take much more rain like what we've been having to fill it the rest of the way to the top. It was interesting to watch the little rafts of brush, the occasional log, and twice what must have been a small tree all go sailing past, and at a good clip too.

So here we are, still safe and warm and dry, so long as we stay inside. And outside, after the brief sunshine of late morning, it's raining again. Tomorrow I'll check the river closer to home, perhaps by the Neely-Soames House, and see how we're doing.

--John R.

Winter Bees

So, today there were bees.

Much to the consternation of our resident hummingbird, by the way, who was relieved when a little later it started to sprinkle again and the bees went back to their bee-refuge, wherever that is, leaving it to sip in peace without having to zig and zag amongst the little ladies.

That's twice now I've thought we've seen the last of them for the year, only to have them re-emerge a week or two later on the next warm or sunny day to rally round the ol' hummingbird feeder. And not just one or two grizzled survivor but more in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty.

Or, as some like to call it, climate change. Incidently, as I was watching the hummingbird/bee show, 'Bird Notes' came on the radio to talk about how the yearly bird counting day was coming round again, and they happened to mention one discovery from compiling their (extensive but anecdotal) evidence is that the wintering territory of migratory birds has shifted by about thirty-five miles over the last decade. I suspect the line dividing when it's warm enough to winter over in lieu of migrating at all is similarly creeping north. It'll be interesting to keep an eye out for other outliers of all the changes going on.

--John R.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Arbocide at Glastonbury

So, tonight I saw the news that the Thorn Tree at Glastonbury got chopped down two nights ago. Speculations as to motive range from anti-Xian (implausible legends connect it to Joseph of Arimathea) to anti-monarch (the locals send the Queen a sprig about this time every year), but it seems far more likely to me that it's simply someone who enjoys killing trees--which after all are large, alive, irreplaceable, and can't fight back (cf. Tolkien's comments on this in the preface to TREE & LEAF and also in THE NEW SHADOW).

They're hoping this one grows back from the stump; if not, I suspect they'll plant a new one, since the current tree is the latest in a long line stretching back for centuries, where a descendent of the former tree is planted in or near its place when the old tree dies, rather like the White Tree of Gondor. Which is good, but it won't be the same.

I'm hoping to get to England sometime in the coming year and seeing a lot of the old prehistorical/archeological sites, Mere and Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels among them -- but I'm sad to know that here's one sight no one will be seeing again, at least not for a v. long time.


current book: LOOKING FOR THE KING by David Downing.

Build Yr Own Dodo

So, thanks to Janice, here's the link to an interesting little display of ingenuity and obsessiveness: a fifteen minute talk by Adam Savage, best known as half of the two-man team that puts on MYTHBUSTERS, talking about why and how he came to make himself a full-sized model of a Dodo skeleton. Which, you learn from hearing him talk, is a lot harder than it sounds. From there he segues into discussion of how, and why, he became obsessed with making an exact model of The Maltese Falcon. But the kicker for me, and the reason Janice forwarded me the link, is the Tolkien reference. You just knew that someone devoted to minutia like this was probably a Tolkien fan, and sure enough at one point he shows, among other past projects he keeps on file, the hand-drawn map of Middle-earth he made once. Looks kind of like the one I made years ago and now have framed up in my office, on parchment, which has now aged enough to look more authentic than it has any right to.*

Anyway, here's the link. The Tolkien bit is very brief and can be found just before the three-minute mark, but the whole thing's worth watching, I think.

*part of its accidental 'antiquing' came from when Tiger, our half-manx cat, threw up on it once many, many years ago now.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Interesting Development

Now this is interesting. I'd seen the announcement a few days ago that the leader of the Palestinian Authority had announced he wanted Palestine recognized as an independent nation or he was going to dissolve the quasi-autonomous 'Palestinian Authority' and let the West Bank revert to Israeli rule (pretty much the defacto state of affairs anyway).

Taken into context with other recent news that the US has just given Israel an extra three and a half billion dollars in top-of-the-line fighter jets in exchange for a three-month stay on settlements, that seemed pretty much yet another empty gesture. So imagine my surprise when tonight I came across a news story that three countries have in fact recognized Palestine as a country in the past few days: Brazil, Ecuador, and now Argentina.

I'm not a supporter of the so-called 'two-state solution' myself -- I think there shd be a single unified Israel-Palestine with universal suffrage for all citizens* -- but this is still a remarkable development, I think. I guess we'll see if it leads anywhere. Given the inertia of the region, and the huge vested interests in the status quo, it seems unlikely.

--John R.

*democracy: a good idea. Sparta-like systems of citizens/second-class citizens/Helots: not so much.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Honey Bomb

So, I haven't been posting much lately because I've been on deadline -- again (one of those projects that's been 'done' twice now but is still not over). I did manage to meet a major milestone on Friday, but later than I expected, because I got seriously interrupted at mid-day by what I think I'll call the honey bomb incident.

There I was at my desk working away when Hastur came up and was inclined to be friendly. It's been a while since I've given her any catnip, which she enjoys sometimes (although less than our other two cats), so I reached into the bottom right drawer of my desk where there shd be a little bagful. Rummaging about absent-mindedly while still half-thinking about the sentence I was recasting on the laptop, I was a bit puzzled when my hand came out sticky. Looking into the drawer, I saw that a small jar I keep honey in, which shd have been on the desktop or in the middle drawer, was in the bottom drawer instead. On its side. And, when I picked it up, it was sticky too. That got my full attention.

To make a long story short, it turned out the jar had not only gotten in the wrong drawer, but it'd tipped over and spilled almost all the honey in it on the contents of the drawer. So I had an unscheduled break from work while I lifted items out of the (double-sized) drawer and carried the more honeyed items off to the bathroom, where I wiped them down with a wet washcloth and then dried them on a towel. The two main casualties were a tarot deck (or the excerpts therefrom that forms my personalized 'Deck of Many Things')* and my Denham file -- that is, all the photocopies I had made two years back of a number of the original little six- or eight-page pamphlets that make up the DENHAM TRACTS. Luckily the damage was confined to the right and top margins of each page, but still it was quite a mess, and the documents now have a faux-antique crinkling along those edges

Could have been worse, but still not a happy event. Ah well; that drawer's now cleaner than it's been in a while . . .**


P.S.: Speaking of honey, I shd note that we had two sunny days in a row and the bees came back to the hummingbird feeder, much to my surprise -- I thought we'd seen the last of them for the year.

Also, speaking of bees, here's a strange little story about bees being dyed red from drinking maraschino cherry juice:

*I prefer the Morgan-Greer Tarot for this purpose.

**my wife says: since it was new.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


So, today's mail brought David Downing's new novel, LOOKING FOR THE KING -- a book which I'd tried to find in the local Borders but eventually wound up ordering from Amazon. I'd first found out about this from a post on the MythSoc list a few weeks back; now that it's arrived it goes in the read-this-soon pile, right behind the two books I'm currently reading concurrently, one of which has to go back to the Univ. Libr. soon. Downing himself is a Lewis scholar, author of a well-received book on the space trilogy: this book is one of a growing few which treat the Inklings as ficitional characters (indeed, its subtitle is AN INKLINGS NOVEL). That is, in the course of their adventures the main characters meet J. R. R. Tolkien and various other Inklings, even attending a session at the Eagle & Child.

This places it among some fairly rocky precedents, from J. I. M. Stewart's caricature of JRRT as 'J. B. Timbermill' in his Oxford quintet (e.g., A MEMORIAL SERVICE [1976]) through James Owens' bizarre take on the Inklings in THE SEARCH FOR THE RED DRAGON [2008] (in which Tolkien is a linguistic dunce who tries to hide the fact he can't read anything but modern English).*

Somewhat less egregiously, there's been the wish-fulfillment of Xian fiction by Jeschke (e.g., EXPECTATIONS [2005]), and the graphic novel about Charles Wms, HEAVEN'S WAR by Micah Harris [2003], which is rather interesting, despite the author's near-total ignorance about JRRT. In a somewhat different category is Rbt Velarde's CONVERSATIONS WITH C. S. LEWIS, which isn't quite a novel; I've only skimmed Velarde's book, but I suspect it might turn out to be the pick of the lot.

Here's hoping that Downing's can rise above the (low) standard set by his precursors in the field of Inklings-as-Fictional-Characters*


P.S.: One odd thing I noticed; as soon as I ordered this, Amazon started lobbing recommendations for random Catholic books at me. So far as I can tell, there's nothing particularly Catholic about Downing's book; I guess we'll see.

*shades of the bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping of Th. Wheeler's THE ARCANUM [2005]-- one of those books which features characters based on real-life people (H.P. Lovecraft, Conan Doyle, Houdini) whose fictional counterparts turn out to be nothing like the real peope whose names they've been given.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Salmon Rushdie on Tolkien (et al)

So, it was interesting to see* a brief piece this past week by the notorious Salman Rushdie** on five fantasy authors who appeal equally to young readers and also adults. His choices are (1) ALICE IN WONDERLAND, (2) PETER PAN (preferring the play over the novelization), (3) THE LORD OF THE RINGS (into which he seems to count THE HOBBIT as well), (4) THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and (5) THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. I've read all but the last (which isn't a fantasy, so far as I can tell from online descriptions), so I'll forebear to comment on that one.

Of the other four, I agree that Carroll, Tolkien, and Pullman deserve a high place on any such list -- though I was bemused by Rushdie's praising the opening of Pullman's book and then getting it wrong (the scene he mentions coming near the end of the third volume, not at the beginning of the first, which suggests he has only the haziest of recollections about the books he's discussing). I part company with him on Barrie, who I think is prized mainly by adults looking backwards sentimentally rather than being particularly popular among young readers. In its place I'd probably put Kenneth Grahame, who in THE GOLDEN AGE absolutely nailed what childhood was like better than Barrie ever could, and wrote a far better fantasy in
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. If I was replacing the Haddon, worthy substitutes might be WATERSHIP DOWN or perhaps THE FACE IN THE FROST.

Here's the link:

As for his question re. Capn Hook, I'd suggest the answer is found in AT-SWIMS-TWO-BIRDS. Although the most disturbing thing I found about Peter Pan when reading the play was the discovery that there's a tradition on stage that the same actor play Mr. Darling, the children's father, and Captain Hook, the villain who tries to kill them. And, just to balance that out, the oddest piece of Peter-Pan trivia I know is that Charlie Chaplin claimed his first stage role was as one of the 'lost boys' in the original production -- a claim that apparently cannot be proven and is viewed with skepticism by some biographers.

At any rate, kudos to Rushdie for singling out Gollum as Tolkien's greatest character.

*thanks to Jessica, who had in turn been sent the link by Anders, to whom also thanks.
**who achieved the rare distinction of writing a book that made a billion people wish him harm, in addition to having once been married to one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

Flying Snakes

So, much better than snakes on a plane is snakes who can fly. Without wings. Technically I suppose they're gliding rather than flying, per se, but it's a powered glide that can take them hundreds of feet, and they can change course in mid-flight. Essentially they turn their body into a boomerang and launch themselves from tree to tree. Pretty amazing stuff. Here's the link -- unfortunately, you have to watch a commercial at the beginning and it immediately segues off into another story afterwards, but c'est la vie.

Interesting to note that even in such a brief clip (twenty-three seconds), the snakes are so maneuverable in flight that the cameras can't keep up with them.
Mildly disturbing to find that the researcher's project is being funded by the Department of Defense. While it's a better use of money than most of the stuff they get up to, the idea they might want to 'weaponize' flying snakes is mildly disturbing.

current reading: SWORD OF ZAGAN by Clark Ashton Smith (age about fifteen)
current audiobook: apocrypha (2nd Esras -- gah!)

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Long Should a Biography Be?

So, in a comment to my earlier post about the welcome arrival of the newly restored complete edition ('Biographer's Cut'?) of S. T. Joshi's two-volume biography of H. P. Lovecraft,* David Bratman expressed incredulity that, having earlier read the original edition of this book, there could possibly be more remaining to be said about Lovecraft, much less 150,000+ words' worth. David's response I think raises an interesting point: how long shd a biography be?

The answer, I think, depends on how important you think the subject of the biography is. If, for example, you think Tolkien is an interesting but not major figure, then a book like Carpenter's biography (which manages to cover eighty years in less than three hundred pages) is about right. If, on the other hand, you think Tolkien is the Author of the Century, or at the very least one of the most important writers of his time, then the 2298 pages of Wayne & Christina's J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE is manna from above. The same, I think applies for collected letters. Modest volumes of some 300 to 400 pages seemed about right for C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. T. a few years after their deaths (i.e., the 1966 LETTERS OF C. S. LEWIS ed. by Warnie** and the 1981 Carpenter/Christopher edition of LETTERS OF JRRT), whereas now Lewis is represented by the three-volume COLLECTED LETTERS (just shy of four thousand pages) and a similar collection cd no doubt be put together of Tolkien's correspondence.

HPL himself got what seemed the full treatment relatively early on, in the form of a huge five-vol. set (with each volume clocking in at around 400 pages). But even this was highly selective, extracted from Lovecraft's epistolary logorrhea and representing only about 5% of the surviving letters (which in turn represents about one-fifth of all the letters he actually wrote). And it cd be justified by the fact that in addition to his fiction Lovecraft was just as important as a behind-the-scenes influence, encouraging younger (Barlow, Howard, Bloch, Derleth, &c) &/or better (Smith, Leiber) writers. More recently, Lovecraft studies has seen the release of single-correspondence collections -- for example, all his letters to Kuttner, or Derleth, or Barlow, each in its own volume. Most of these were sold in tiny editions from small presses, but still collectively they're an enormously valuable primary source for any Lovecraft scholar; Tolkien scholars can, for now, only dream of such treasures.

The best piece I've ever seen about matching the length of biography to the relative importance of the author came in the Introduction to Norman Page's biography of A. E. Housman [1983], which in fact I bought because in skimming it I was so impressed by his argument. Page argues that only a few major figures deserve the full-scale treatment, while secondary figures, like Housman, are best served by shorter, less exhaustive books. As a example, gives a paragraph describing the kind of shoes Housman always wore, then follows this up by saying that every word in that paragraph is true, but none of it is worth knowing -- hence, for the rest of his book he avoids such trivia.

So, in the end it's a circular question. In some cases (e.g., Jane Austen), the relative lack of information will hold the biographies down to a certain length. In others, reticence on the part of the authors & their estates (e.g., T. S. Eliot) will do the same, at least for years and years after their deaths. But in some cases, because of the enthusiasm of the audience, we'll get massive amounts of information, whether their subjects are worth it or not.*** It'll be a boon for those interested in the subject, and those not interested can just ignore it. That makes it a win-win situation for all concerned. Except, perhaps, the trees.

--John R.

*rather oddly titled 'I AM PROVIDENCE' -- which wd have come as a bit of a surprise to HPL's fellow citizens of that Rhode Island town, most of whom never heard of him.
**although what was published was entirely re-edited by Christopher Derrick, a fact unknown to the public for several decades.
***for example, is Dorothy L. Sayers really worth a five-volume set of collected letters, which is roughly equivalent to the treatment Virginia Woolf got? The letters' publisher didn't think so, bailing on the project mid-way through, so that the latter volumes had to be published by other means

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sixty-Seven Years Does Not Pass In Vain

So, recently I ordered the 1943 Batman serial from Netflix. I'd been under the impression these were early Batman cartoons, rather like the Fleischer Superman cartoons from 1941/42, but when it arrived they turned out to be episodes in a live-action series. They're pretty generic 'masked man' serial fodder of the era. It's nice to see Batman and Robin tooling around in a perfectly ordinary car, climbing up buildings by using the fire escape (rather than rappelling down walls), and losing almost as many fist-fights as they win (Batman tends to get tossed off roofs a lot). There are also some hints of things I associate with the 1960s tv series rather than the early Batman comic in the Bruce Wayne/Wayne Manor parts of the story. So, as a piece of Batman lore, it's passable. But at one point it's a scarifying reminder of its times.

As I said, this serial was made in 1943. And as such, it's not surprising to find Batman fighting not the Joker or Two-Face but agents of a wily Japanese spy. That in itself's not so bad -- I've seen a bad Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes in which Holmes fights the Nazis. But it's shocking that it includes whole-hearted endorsement of one of our country's most shameful episodes of that era. At one point early on in the first episode, the camera pans over a street of deserted buildings and closed businesses with Japanese names while the voiceover reads as follows:

"This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street. But one business survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity seekers." [i.e., a 'Cave of Horrors' carnival ride which features displays of Japanese atrocities toward American civilians and soldiers]

It's strange and perhaps thought-provoking to realize that the most popular thing FDR did in his presidency --rounding up people and sending them off to concentration camps based on their ethnicity -- is now the most shameful part of his legacy.

--John R.

Virtual Idol

So, thanks to Luis for pointing me to this interesting bit of film last night. I'd heard a year or two back that a Japanese company had adopted a virtual mascot -- that is, instead of a talking animal, they'd use an anime character in their commercials. Sounded like a fun idea, but not that different from what we've seen over here at least since the days of Tony the Tiger.

What I hadn't realized is how good the technology has gotten. I'm not sure if the following clip is an extension of the idea I'd read about or someone else taking it the next step, but in it you see the virtual character Miku Hatsune 'live' in concert. That is, the musicians are all real and playing live, the audience is real, and the stage is real. What's 'virtual' is the image of the girl singer, essentially a hologram projected onto the stage. So what you're seeing in this clip hasn't been added in after the fact; she's performing in real time.

Obviously, this has all sorts of applications and consequences, but for now it's fun to just marvel in their having pulled this off.


Friday, November 19, 2010

A Quartet of Cat Links

Last night Janice shared with me some cat footage that's too good not to pass along--how to wrap your cat (hint: it helps if you have the most mellow cat ever):

Meanwhile, this just in: scientists study how cats drink water. After four years, the answer: with great efficiency, at about four laps per minute (two per minute for lions):

And just to add a little literary note, here's some bookstore cats you can drop in and meet if you're in the right area(s), courtesy AbeBooks.com:

Finally, there's Stalking Cat!


current reading: TOLKIEN & THE SILMARILLION, plus the deleted chapter -- by Clyde S. Kilby.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Unusual online false-identity case

So, today I read about a lawyer and scholar who got into true hot water for sending forged e-mails in another person's name from bogus accounts in an attempt to defame that person (said e-mails being admissions of guilt for fabricated crimes). The forger claimed, when caught, that it was all a hoax. The law decided otherwise, sentencing him today to six months in prison.

The oddest thing about this is that the figures involved were Dead Sea Scrolls scholars (or, rather, one leading scholar and the son of a rival scholar). Turns out the two sides both challenge the prevailing theory that the Scrolls were written by the Essene community living near where the scrolls were found. One side (the victim) believes that community were Sadducees, while the other (the perpetrator's father) thinks the scrolls had nothing to do with any local group but represent the Temple Library from Jerusalem that was stashed in an out-of-the-way place during a crisis (permanently, as it turned out). I tend toward the Essene theory myself, but who can say?

Reading today's news story, I thought at once about what it'd been like to watch a similar defamation campaign unfold in real time: the long, strange, sad Lindskoog affair. I had a chance last month to dig up some of the original contemporary documentation in THE CANADIAN C. S. LEWIS JOURNAL: both reprints of the original letters and clippings before Schofield discovered them to be bogus, the exposures that quickly followed, and ultimately Lindskoog's admission of guilt. All in all it makes for fascinating, and disturbing, reading.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Books Arrive: Smith and Lovecraft

So, some heavyweight books (literally*) arrived in the mail over the past few days. First there was the two-volume revised-&-expanded edition of S. T. Joshi's biography of H. P. Lovecraft.

This was originally published in 1996, but the manuscript was so long Joshi (the world's foremost Lovecraft scholar) was forced to cut 150,000 words (out of half a million) in order for the publisher to fit it all into one volume. Now he's taking advantage of a switch to a new publisher (Necronomicon Press > Hippocampus Press) to restore the missing material. It also says he did some updates, but a quick spot check shows that a lot of passages have not in fact been updated--for example, a reference to "the latter half of this century" (p. 1034) clearly refers to the one that ended a decade ago, not the one we're in now. The sole reference to Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU--probably the single greatest factor in spreading knowledge and appreciation of Lovecraft's work in the last quarter-century--has been expanded from a single sentence then to two sentences now. Of particular interest is Joshi's final judgment of Derleth (p. 1034), who he believes has a mostly negative legacy of having prevented Lovecraft's work from reaching a mainstream audience for decades.

The other book, though unexpected, is v. welcome: Vol. V of a five-volume set of the complete short stories (fantasy) of Clark Ashton Smith (THE LAST HIEROGLYPH, ed. Scott Connors & Ron Hilger), from Night Shade Books. I knew this one wd come eventually, but the timing was unexpected, the first three volumes having arrived in 2007 (January, June, & December) and the fourth in August of last year (2009). The great thing about this series is not only is it complete but the editors used a chronological arrangement, starting with Smith's first short fantasy story (excluding his juvenalia) and ending with his very last. The endnotes discuss their efforts to establish the best possible text and give details about each piece's composition. There have been so many attempts to publish complete collections of CAS's tales, all of which petered out at some point with a significant number of stories left uncollected --most notably the Adult Fantasy Series from Ballantine back in the late sixties/early seventies, but also including the TimeScape series in the early eighties and of course the Arkham House hardcovers from the forties through the seventies. So, well-done, Night Shade Books, for giving the greatest of all the Weird Tales authors a suitable 'Collected Works'.

Finally, and co-incidentally, these arrived while I was reading THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM AND OTHER REVISIONS,** one of the first books I bought after my arrival in Seattle in Sept 1997 (on my first visit to Borders Books, nr SouthCenter). I started reading it then but bogged down without finishing the book, and despite subsequent dipping from time to time never made it all the way through until now.

It's an interesting read, so long as you don't expect too much. Lovecraft's work really divides into three levels. At the very top, like a pyramid's capstone, are a few really good pieces where he outdoes himself, like "The Strange High House in the Mists" and "The Colour Out of Space". Then below this is the pyramid itself, made up of most of his best-known tales, like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", in which he works out his characteristic concerns in his characteristic mannered prose, with lots of italics. There's not much variation in these, but they've a fun read as he works up what is essentially an alternate reality based around a few firmly-held though contradictory beliefs, a secondary world based on New England in the twenties and thirties. These tales have been hugely influential on any number of writers better than Lovecraft himself, who have looted them for ideas just as Lovecraft pillaged Poe and Dunsany. And then there are the failures, like "The Horror at Red Hook" or "The Picture in the House" or "At the Mountains of Madness", including a few so-bad-it's-almost-good guilty pleasures like the 'Herbert West--Reanimator' series.

And then there's THE HORROR AT THE MUSEUM, the fourth in the three-volume series of Arkham House's complete Lovecraft, the best pieces among which almost rise to the bottommost level of what Lovecraft published under his own name. It's ironic that Lovecraft, a horror writer by avocation, made his living as a ghost writer, 'revising' stories for clients. This book collects together those ghostwritten stories (except for a few, like "Imprisoned Among the Pharaohs", which he wrote for Harry Houdini, that appear in the main three-volume set), dividing them in two lots, 'primary revisions' (in which Lovecraft pretty much wrote the whole story based on an outline or story-idea from a client) and 'secondary revisions' (in which Lovecraft at least had a draft to work from, no matter how drastically he re-wrote the piece).

Reading them, I'm reminded of a passage in Christopher Hitchens' HITCH-22, where he quotes P. G. Wodehouse as saying 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'*** Joshi occasionally takes refuge in the claim that Lovecraft stories he particularly dislikes must be intentional self-parodies. I'd say instead that Lovecraft often lapses into unintentional self-parody. A particularly egregious example here is "The Diary of Alonzo Typer", who is actually writing in his diary while being dragged away to the cellar (to suffer an unnamable fate!); the mental image of him desperately holding on for dear life with one hand while jotting down some observations with the other is so comical as to ruin any effect the story might have aimed for (rather better is "The Loved Dead", where the dying suicide reports feeling hellfire already burning him just before the end). Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will find relatively little here, aside from Yig. There are certainly references to other Great Old Ones and strange tomes, but they're relatively minor -- it's always been my belief that Lovecraft inserted them into these tales (which appeared under other authors' names) as a way of signaling to WEIRD TALES fans that HPL himself had actually written them, rather like the Old English poem Cynewulf.

After that, reading a judicious mix of some C.o.C. scenarios (the newest from Miskatonic River Press) and a few CAS tales shd serve as a good pallet cleaner . . .

*When I went to mail to a friend in London the extra set I'd ordered as part of a book exchange, I found each volume weighed 2 lbs. 8 oz.
***one of Wodehouse's stiff-upper-lip quips made when being held in a prisoner of war camp early in WWII, having been captured as an enemy alien during the German invasion of France. For which he was, incidentally, hounded out of England after his release when the propaganda department (including, I think, A. A. Milne) decided to make an example of him for not having said nasty enough things about his captors while locked up -- the main reason Wodehouse left England and lived in America the last thirty years of his long life.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Total Drama World Tour: Tolkien tribute (spoilers)

So, tonight they broadcast the finale of TOTAL DRAMA: WORLD TOUR, the third season in the 'Total Drama Island' series. This Canadian cartoon is the perfect 'reality show', in that it's totally reality-free. There's never a shadow of a doubt that it's all fake, every action, line of dialogue, and elimination scripted. That said, they did a clever homage to the Peter Jackson films in the final scene.

(spoiler space)

When one of the two finalists won the million dollars (by tossing a replica of the other finalist into a Hawaiian volcano), he/she was clutching the case with the cash when suddenly a sinister figure appeared behind him/her: Ezekiel, a.k.a. 'Homeschool', the first contestant to be eliminated, who had gone feral and lurked around the fringes of the show all season. Now a hunched, stunted, degenerate figure, he tackled the winner, and they wrestled for the precious prize on the lip of the caldera -- until, seizing the prize, he fell into the lava, holding the precious case above him as he sank until it too finally fell onto the lava.

There was no finger biting, and thirty seconds of action didn't drag on into five minutes of screen time, but otherwise it was a nice visual tribute to the climax of THE RETURN OF THE KING. If you enjoy such things, I suggest checking it out: I found it quite a hoot.

--John R.

Oh, and as an added bonus after the closing credits they had another little bit of film retelling the fate of the other finalist, replicating in TOTAL DRAMA terms the final scene in REVENGE OF THE SITH.
Bring on Season Four!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Long Post (con't)


(3) So, just how big a deal is this for New Zealand? Well, the first hint I got of it was when I read that when the studio executives flew down to N. Z. , they met with the Prime Minister. That's right: the country's leader made time in his busy schedule for a series of meetings with the film people. In the course of which he brokered a deal which, I learn from skimming the posts on Kristen Thompson's always excellent website, http://www.frodofranchise.com/blog/, immediately led to the New Zealand parliament's fast-tracking legislation to make that deal fully legal. That's right; they didn't just given them big tax breaks (though they did that too): they changed the law so as to keep Peter Jackson happy. There was even some mention elsewhere of the exchange rate for the New Zealand doller fluctuating according to the latest news re. the films and whether they'd be made there. Now that's a big deal.***

(4) The end result of which is that things shd start moving quickly now. During the enforced down time, they had time to work on the script, scout locations, create sets and models, perfect any new make-up and special effect techniques, &c. They did lose their director, Del Toro, who made what seemed at the time a reasonable decision to bail on the film after the delays stretched on and on. A bad choice on his part, it turns out, but so it goes. Personally, I've always hoped Jackson wd direct it himself, so it'd be a smoother match for his LotR films. They still need to lock down McKellan, and Serkis, and I suppose Weaving (though I wdn't mind if someone else played that role here). About the only disappointing bit of casting news I heard was that former Dr. Who Sylvester McCoy has been tapped to play Radagast:
Too bad: his main claim to fame is having been the second-worst Dr. Who ever.**** This casting strikes me as bizarre, given that if you were going to go that route Tom Baker, the greatest of the doctors, is still alive, though getting on a bit (in his mid-seventies now).

On the other hand, there is the cheerful thought that since he's playing someone who doesn't appear in the book, McCoy's scene may not wind up appearing in the movie either (i.e., the theatrical release). But that seems unlikely. We'll just have to suck it up and hope Jackson can cox a career-transcending performance out of unpromising material. He's done it before.

(5) And finally, I learn from the new BEYOND BREE (just arrived) that the studios have finally done the right thing and paid the Tolkien Estate the money they owed them. And again we're talking a lot of money here: "millions of dollars" according to the passage quoted in BEYOND BREE (cf. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/10/jrr-tolkeins-the-hobbit-might-finally-be-coming-to-screens.html). There's nothing like needing something out of somebody to make a big business do the right thing. So that's good news at least.

--John R.

***but then given that the first three films made about ten billion dollars all told, there's an awful lot of money potentially to be made from the two-part HOBBIT film.

****beaten out only by his predecessor, Colin Baker as the sixth doctor.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Long Post on THE HOBBIT movie

Deadlines. They make you late for everything.

So, having finished up a freelance deadline last night, now I finally have time and mental energy to blog again.

And thus it's time to return to a post I started three weeks ago and had to put by, despite one or two ineffectual efforts in the meantime, until now. Events have swept on by, but it's a topic of abiding interest (to me at least), so I think still worth noting. In any case, here's a quick run-through of recent developments on the HOBBIT movie.*

(1) after months of coyness, suddenly Jackson et al. announced a bunch of casting for the film(s), most notably by naming who'll be playing Bilbo: Martin Freeman.

I hadn't seen him before, but as luck wd have it his new role as Dr. Watson in the new series of SHERLOCK HOLMES was debuting on tv here just two days later (Sunday night Oct. 24th), so I got to see him in action.

My verdict: he'll be fine. Although the guy playing Holmes actually looks more like a Peter Jackson hobbit, with his mop of curly hair, Freeman did a good job playing an apparently ordinary bloke who gets swept up by adventures and has to deal with a lot of unreasonable people -- pretty good training for Bilbo, one wd think.

So, while I might privately mourn that I'll never get to see my personal dream choice play the role (Hugh Laurie), this first pick seems okay.**

And they'd no sooner announced the lead than a lot of the other roles got filled: Thorin, Balin, Fili, Kili, &c. -- all people I'd never heard of, like Freeman himself -- and like most of the cast for Jackson's earlier LotR. I suspect that rather than having a few high-profile well-known actors like he ceded smaller roles to in LotR, here that star power will be filled by returning luminaries such as Ian McKellan and Andy Sirkis (assuming those apparently ongoing contract talks work out, as I"m sure they will).

Then, just after I saw a piece in the dentist's office in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about Peter Jackson's casting for the upcoming HOBBIT movie, either a little later that same day (Nov. 3rd) or possibly the next I saw a mention at an online news site about MGM's having finally officially filed for bankruptcy --the one big hold-up in getting going on the movie these past few months having been that MGM, which owns a stake in it, was about to disappear down the rabbit hole, potentially taking all the movie's profits with it. So now that particular rough bit of road looks to be behind us.

(2) Then, no sooner had that been settled than a really major roadblock loomed ahead: labor woes. Specifically, New Zealand actors kicked up a fuss, demanding to be paid Screen Actor's Guild rates (without, so far as I cd tell, actually joining the SAG, paying dues, &c). Jackson's team responded angrily by saying that they might film in Canada instead -- only to have representatives of Canadian actors' unions say in effect that they wdn't be scabs and wd recognize any boycott by New Zealand actors. Whereupon rumors started circulating that THE HOBBIT might be filmed in Eastern Europe. There were accusations that the guild making the demands wasn't even a New Zealand group after all but an Australian union claiming that it had the right to represent New Zealand actors (apparently without those actors themselves agreeing to that). Things got so crazy that people even started holding Keep-the-Hobbit-in-New-Zealand rallies across the country.

All this raised the spectre that filming outside New Zealand might mean that Bilbo's world wdn't look like Frodo's. My own take is that (a) Jackson can afford to pay people well and (b) the actors wd be crazy to drive away the crown of New Zealand filmmaking -- or, as my wife likes to refer to it, the New Zealand Full Employment Plan.

Luckily, so far as I can tell the fuss has died down here as well. Not only are they planning to film in N.Z., but Jackson et al are rebuilding Hobbiton in more durable materials to be a permanent attraction after the films are done -- a pretty smart move, given how many people have travelled to New Zealand in the past seven years to see places where things used to be before they dissembled the sets.

(con't in next post)


*(many thanks to those on the MythSoc list who posted links there between Oct 22nd and 25th, --Sara Ciborski, Alana Abbott, and Jason Fisher-- and also to Jessica Yates)

**too bad about the Holmes, though -- the first episode promised more than the rest wound up delivering, so that despite a nicely quirky approach, a good job updating Holmes & Watson to the 21st century, an appealing supporting cast, & many little tributes to A.C.D.'s stories scattered throughout, the second and third stories wind up being a bit of a mess, more style than substance. I'll keep watching, but I've definitely lowered my expectations.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

EGYPT part three: THE RED PYRAMID (spoilers)


I see I've let some time lapse since last posting, due to an exigent deadline. Rather than a longer lag, let me wrap up the Egypt thread for now with a brief note about another book I just read, Rich Riordan's THE RED PYRAMID.

As the first book in the KANE CHRONICLES, this starts off a new series for Riordan that essentially allows him to do for Egyptian mythology what his Percy Jackson series (THE LIGHTNING THIEF et al) did for Greek myth: presenting the discovery by apparently ordinary modern-day kids that because of their bloodlines they have strange powers that get them wrapped up in power struggles involving vast entities (gods and monsters). It differs from his main series in two interesting ways:

first, while he keeps to the first person point-of-view that's such a mark of his Percy Jackson books, here he has a pair of narrators who trade off, chapter by chapter, giving two distinct 'voices' and versions of events.

second, while part of a series this is essentially a stand-alone novel. It's clear that this more closely resembles Terry Pratchett's DISCWORLD, where he can write as many novels as he wants that share the same setting, rather than the Harry-Potterish model of his earlier series, which focuses on the continuing adventures of a specific hero and his friends.

All in all, I'd have to say it worked for me. Riordan has a strange ability to get the reader to underestimate him. You think you see where things are going, major plot-points signaled a mile off, and then when you get there he turns out to be more subtle and tricky than you'd expected. I think this may be a carry-over from his having been a mystery writer before he shifted focus to the world of young-adult novels. I also thought it telling that, at my recent visit to Marquette, when checking back into the library after lunch, I noticed the student at the entry checkpoint was reading THE RED PYRAMID, which she praised as a good book when I asked about it. After which I learned that both Richard and Jim had read and enjoyed it, as had Jim's teenaged son. So Riordan is definitely doing something right to be able to appear to a diverse audience of young adults, college-age students, and middling-aged longtime fans of fantasy.

So, I'm glad to see Riordan trying a variation on his formula before his books get too, well, formulaic. I think this one succeeds. There's one really funny spot in particular where a mentor of the main characters looks over at Manhattan and says they (the people in the book connected with the gods of Egypt) never go over there; that island has gods of its own. One more thing I thought well done is that the details of the book's cover are actually quite significant, in a way I can't reveal without spoilers.
(begin spoiler space)
(end spoiler space)
Riordan does do one thing interesting here: his protagonists, the brother-sister team of Carter (age 14) and Sadie (age 12) Kane, are African-American (or, rather, African-English/American).
Carter takes after his father, who is black, and Sadie after her mother, who was white. The cover art does a good job of presenting a dramatic scene showing the heroes while having them face away in such a pose as hides their ethnicity. Interesting. The book itself also contains a few passing references to how, now that Carter is growing up, he has to be careful to dress in non-threatening ways to avoid trouble -- something that becomes a significant complication to the plot at one point. Riordan doesn't make a big deal about this but he does include it as a simple, unfair, fact of life. Again, interesting, and I think really well done. Kudos.

current reading: THE PAPYRUS OF ANI, A CAT'S LIFE
current audiobook: HITCH 22.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Miriam Lichtheim (EGYPT, part two)

EGYPT, con't

One of the things reading PHARAOH'S FLOWERS did was reminded me of Miriam Lichtheim's* three-volume set of scrupulous translations ANCIENT EGYPTIAN LITERATURE. I've had this set for quite a while, and enjoyed reading it v. much; I'm looking forward to re-reading it at some point after I've done some more background reading, the better to appreciate it (e.g., reading the whole of THE BOOK OF GOING FORTH BY DAY). In the meantime, I enjoy dipping into them now and again.

Of these, Vol. I I inherited from Taum; Vol II I bought about five years later at the long-vanished Blake's Books in Milw, and Vol III I thought I'd picked up at the museum store at the Field Museum next to their impressive Egypt room, but I've written in it that it was one of my earliest purchases on amazon.com--so either my memory is faulty or I must have seen it in the museum store on my first visit there, passed on it, later regretted having not picked it up when I had the chance, and then not been able to find it again on my second visit.

In any case, Lichtheim's series covers everything from Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts (which fall into what we think of today as 'THE BOOK OF THE DEAD') to brief autobiographies, hymns, cosmogonical myths, wonder stories, wisdom literature (think Proverbs), even love poems. One of my favorite bits was an inscription of a pharaoh who, on a long trip across the desert, got thirsty. He ordered that a well be dug so others crossing that desert after him shdn't have to suffer like that, and put up a marker with the inscription to explain why the way-station was there. Now that's my kind of pharaoh.

What particularly struck me this time I looked into the books were the love poems included in her second volume (THE MIDDLE KINGDOM). One of these is so short and simple as to be essentially timeless: a mere six lines from Papyrus Harris 500:

My heart thought of my love of you
When half of my hair was braided;
I came at a run to find you
And neglected my hairdo.
Now if you let me braid my hair
I shall be ready in a moment.
(Lichtheim, Vol. II, p. 191)

That sounds to me v. like one of Ezra Pound's translations from the Chinese. Another, also from the same papyrus, is quite different:

I shall lie down at home
And pretend to be ill;
Then enter the neighbors to see me,
Then comes my beloved** with them.
She will make the physicians unneeded
She understands my illness!

--I found this one striking for its similarity to courtly romance motifs C. S. Lewis claimed (in THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE) to have been the invention of the 12th century. I suspect the attitudes described were already old when those lines were written down, some three thousand years ago. People don't change much.

Speaking of which, another piece included in the same volume is the wonder tale The Two Brothers, which Tolkien famously evoked in ON FAIRY-STORIES (see Anderson/Flieger p. 37 et al). This comes from Papyrus D'Orbiney, and it's rather a nice touch that we actually know who wrote this papyrus -- that is, the name of the scribe, Ennana, who carefully copied it down near the end of what we know as the Nineteenth Dynasty.


*the late Miriam Lichtheim, I shd say, since a quick check shows that she died a few years back at the age of ninety. Apparently she was a Turkish-Israeli Egyptologist: an interesting combination, and highly respected in the field.
**Lichtehim's original reads "sister" here, and she explains that "brother" or "sister" were terms of endearment between lovers in Egyptian custom. That strikes a somewhat creepy tone to the modern ear, however, so I made the substitution.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


So, while I seem to be in an Egyptological mood, I might as well take advantage of it to make three quick related posts.

(1) One of the books I took with me to read on my recent trip (#II.2874) was PHARAOH'S FLOWERS: THE BOTANICAL TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMUN by F. Nigel Hepper [2nd ed, 2009], a beautifully illustrated little book. I'd seen this in one of the book catalogues I've been getting ever since I started going to Kalamazoo, clipped it out, and then amazingly enough not lost the reference in the intervening months before I finally got around to ordering it.

It turns out to be very much the sort of book you'll really like if you like books like this, and I most definitely do. Basically Hepper, a researcher at the Kew Botanical Gardens, takes every kind of plant found within Tutankhamun's tomb (wood, spice, food, fiber) and explains whether it was native to Egypt (papyrus, willow, linen/flax), not native but capable of being grown there in carefully tended gardens or fields or orchards (cornflowers, wheat, olive trees, barley), or exotic imports (birch-bark, cedar of Lebannon, myrrh, frankincense). It was disappointing to learn that stories of seeds taken from the tomb being planted and sprouting are spurious. Like Hepper, I find myself curious about what persea fruit might taste like. And I enjoyed his story about the amazing discovery, a few years ago, of tiny grains of tobacco in some New Kingdom tombs. How cd this be, when tobacco is a New World plant? Turns out that (a) 19th century archeologists loved them their snuff and (b) our modern equipment for detecting and analyzing plant residue has become fantastically sophisticated. It was also interesting to learn that Egyptian beekeepers wore no sort of protective garments -- Hepper assumes they just had to suck up getting stung as part of the job; I suspect they simply used slow, gentle movements to avoid alarming their bees.

Of all the things found in the tomb, though, the one that surprised me the most was the discovery that King Tut liked watermelons. I had no idea they had watermelons (recognizably like the roundish ones still popular today) in ancient Egypt, but they found a batch of watermelon seeds in the tomb -- apparently the Egyptians liked to eat them like sunflower seeds.

The most moving thing of all, and the one biggest take-away from the book (aside from my ever-increasing admiration for ancient people's ingenuity in discovering food resources) are the flowers that were found in the innermost coffin, laid directly on the young king's body. It drove home, as nothing else does, that this is not 'an archeological sight' but a burial: it's not hard to picture the young widow placing them there just before the lid was put on for the last time, just as people still do today.

In short, a fascinating little book, lavishly illustrated (in both black & white and color). I might have to follow it up by searching down one of the books mentioned in its bibliography, Zohary & Hopf's THE DOMESTICATION OF PLANTS IN THE OLD WORLD [1993], assuming it's non-specialist enough to not be too opaque to a general reader.



Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hitchens re. Lewis & Tolkien

So, today when listening to my current audiobook -- Christopher Hitchens' new autobiography HITCH-22, I came across a passing mention of Tolkien and Lewis. Checking a print copy at my friendly neighborhood bookstore, I transcribed the passage, which turns out to be a footnote on page 78. Since I think relatively few people who enjoy reading Tolkien will be reading Hitchens' book, thought I'd share it -- particularly since there's no mention of it in the book's index.

However, it's pretty dismissive, so if such things annoy you, best to stop reading now. I'll insert a little spoiler space to help:

In a footnote to a passage describing his passion for a fellow student, Hitchens writes:

"It was Guy, now dead for some time but in his later years an amazingly successful seducer of girls, who first insisted that I read the Greek-classical novels of Mary Renault. If this was all he had done for me, I would still be hoarsely grateful to him. While other boys plowed their way across the puerile yet toilsome pages of Narnia, or sank themselves into the costive innards of Middle Earth, I was following the thread of Ariadne and the tracks of Alexander. The King Must Die; The Bull from the Sea: Athens has seldom trumped Jerusalem with greater style or panache."

I'm a bit suspicious of this passage, since it's describing Hitchens (b. 1949) when he was the equivalent of a high school student, apparently roughly 15 or so (circa 1964), which seems about right for folks to read LotR but a bit old to be discovering Narnia for the first time.

The irony, of course, is that Hitchens apparently doesn't know that both Tolkien and Lewis were admirers of Renault's work, particularly the two novels he cites. So while he drags them in to score some points, they wd actually have been in agreement with him about Renault's merits.

current audiobook: HITCH-22
current novel: THE RED PYRAMID

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ravenstone Castle

So, we stayed in a lot of places on our recent trip -- at Harbor House in Wheaton for me (in two different rooms) for the first (solo) stage of the trip; then together for the second phase in a hotel in Rockford, at my brother-in-law's, at Lake Lawn Lodge in Delavan (where I had a great walk into the nearby woods and even saw hitherto unsuspected beehives), and finally in Ravenstone Castle, a new(ish) B&B just outside Harvard, Illinois.

We hadn't even known there was a B&B in Harvard, so when Janice discovered about Ravenstone Castle when preparing for this trip, it seemed something we'd really regret passing up. Basically, it's a castle in the middle of an old cornfield on the outskirts of town. Here's what it looks like outside:

The decor inside is all tapestries, medieval-themed paintings, &c. We stayed in the King Arthur room, but the last day we were there got the tour of the other rooms: the Queen Elizabeth room, the Egyptian room (the odd-man-out so far as the medieval/renaissance theme went, but by far the most impressive of the lot), and a fourth room they've just completed, the v. neat Unicorn room (which has a set of six Unicorn-&-the-Maiden tapestries). To get an idea of what the first three of these look like, check out the following link:

We also enjoyed walking around the back and seeing the frog pond (at one point sadly depleted, we were told, by serving as the temporary haven of a little rescued turtle, who apparently enjoyed his time there more than the tadpoles did). And of course, it being us, we were particularly glad to make the acquaintance of three of their six cats: Sir Peter (whom, in deference to Dorothy Sayers, I dubbed 'Lord Peter'),** a fluffy white cat w. black patches I dubbed Lady Harriet, and a sleek black cat with white whiskers and an amazing voice whom I called Orbison.***

All in all, someplace I'd gladly stay again -- though next time we might need to go for a shorter stay so as to pull out all the stops and stay in the Egyptian Room -- having just read a fascinating little book on all the plants found in King Tut's tomb, and just started today on Rick Riordan's latest, THE RED PYRAMID, I'm primed on the subject right now.


*I particularly liked The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton, which looked v. preRaphaelite.

**For a picture of Lord Peter, click here: http://www.ravenstonecastle.com/rules.html

***since I already know a black cat with a Siamese voice named Elvis (of Tindalos House), it seemed appropriate to extend the Sun Records theme to another black cat. His voice was too mournful to make me think of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash seemed inappropriate, and there's no need to insult a cat by comparing him to Jerry Lee Lewis.

I'd forgotten that they mentioned the castle had been the subject of a local news segment, which Janice has just tracked down for me. If you'd like to see a little video about the castle, here's the link:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Day at Marquette (part two)


Of course I'd hoped to get through more than I did, and the two other projects I'd thought of spending a little time on after I finished with my main task (a look at Taum's papers and some more time with Boorman's LotR script) will, like my hoped-for time at the Wade to work some more on THE DARK TOWER and the Major's diaries, have to wait for Another Time.

I did have one nice bit of serendipity, when Richard asked me if I'd seen the new Wm Gray book. I had not, but he pointed out that I was listed in its index. So after he'd had a look at it, he let me borrow it for a minute. In full its title is FANTASY, MYTH AND THE MEASURE OF TRUTH: TALES OF PULLMAN, LEWIS, TOLKIEN, MACDONALD, AND HOFFMAN (Palgrave Macmillan [2009]). So many books have been coming out about Tolkien these last few years that I've slacked off buying the ones focused on multiple authors which only have a chapter or so devoted to JRRT,*** but I see from the Gray that I'll have to mend my ways.

Of its entires relating to me, two were to MR. BAGGINS, which of course I was happy enough to see. But to my surprise and delight the rest were to my essay from the 2004 Blackwelder conference: "And All the Days of Her Life Are Forgotten: LotR as Mythic Prehistory". I had put a lot of effort into this piece and been pleased with how it turned out, feeling I was on to something, an aspect of Tolkien's work that hadn't gotten the attention it deserved. So I confess I'd been disappointed when my contribution met with the dismissive review by Brian Rosebury (himself the author of an excellent bk on Tolkien's style), in which he summed up what he thought was my thesis and then asked "Why should this matter . . . ?" (TS.IV.284-285). My 1981 Haggard piece, the 1985 Wms & Tolkien piece, and my 1992/1996 Tolkien & Lewis piece had all been quoted from or referred to a fair number of times, so I was a bit disappointed that this piece, aside from David Bratman's scrupulously neutral summary in The Year's Work (TS.VI.330), had apparently sunk without a trace.

Gray, by contrast, devotes most of a brief section of his book ("More Trouble with Human History"--specifically, pages 80-87) to a summary and critique of my argument. In the process he makes exactly the kind of point I wd make if I were revising the essay today: that CSL describes something v. like what I think Tolkien was doing on one level with the term "supposals" -- something I only noticed about two years ago when re-reading the CSL collection ON STORIES when researching another project. I'm only sorry I didn't have a chance to look at Gray's book in more detail; now I'll have to order a copy. Unfortunately, being from Palgrave Macmillan,**** it will not be cheap (indeed, checking just now I see it's fifty pounds).

So, a good visit. As always, too brief, but it did feel good to be back in the Archives again.

--John R.

***e.g. Dickerson's HOMER TO HARRY POTTER, which I only picked up the night of his Wade lecture. I've only had a chance to skim this so far, and can report that he v. much does not like Phillip Pullman.

****also the publisher of Dimitra Fimi's book, winner of this year's Mythopoeic Award.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Day at Marquette (part one)

So, today (Wend. Oct. 20th) we drove up from the Harvard Castle* and I got to spend the day at Marquette while Janice had fun lunching with friends from her days in the Milwaukee office (Judy, Monica, and Nancy), seeing the Mitchell domes, and revisiting the old neighborhood (seems like the Beans & Barley is still there, though the sushi shop of doom is long gone, and the earth opened up and swallowed part of the nearby street). The theme of places where I used to know being torn down continues, and seems to be accelerating. From the freeway we saw that Tory Hill -- a v. pleasant green space on Marquette's SE corner few students paid any attention to -- is now buried beneath a new Law Building.** Coming down Wisconsin Avenue from 27th street to the Marquette area, we passed building after building where businesses that'd already been there when I arrived in 1981 we now gone, at least one (the florist shop) with a 'Lost Our Lease' sign in the window. But the biggest surprise was my discovery that my apartment on 17th street--where I lived when I took my doctoral exams, struggled over my dissertation topic, and helped plan two Tolkien conferences--is now gone, its building, and the building behind it, and the parking lot on the corner all now vanished beneath what will be the new Engineering Bldg once it's completed.

I'd planned to meet three friends for lunch, and had decided for old time's sake to meet up at Angelo's, the local Italian place at the corner of 16th and Wells where I went many a time with Taum back in my Marquette days. When I heard that morning that Angelo's too was soon to close, I was glad I picked it and looked forward to eating their lasagna one last time. Unfortunately, when Richard (West) and I arrived to meet up with Jim (Pietrusz) and Jim (Lowder), we found it was already too late: Angelo's was closed, with fond farewell and we'll miss you -type messages scribbled on the door and wall in chalk. Gah! Meanwhile, I found out later from Janice that her apartment on Kenilworth, where we lived after we first got married (and indeed where we had the marriage ceremony itself), is now not just gone but replaced by some ugly condos. So far as I know that just leaves the Abbotsford, the place in Hales' Corner, and possibly the house on 25th street remaining of all the places I lived in the Milwaukee area, and I wdn't bet on the 25th street house's having survived, given that it was in a 'transitional' neighborhood. Too bad; I'm the kind of person who likes physical corolaries to my memories.

Thankfully the new Archives is still there, and I enjoyed seeing Matt (the Archivist) and Susan (the Archives Secretary) and having a chat with Mark (who's in charge of the Indian Missions records), who I hadn't seen the last time or two I'd been there. Richard came over from Madison (via the faltering service of the Badger Bus, once a stalwart method of getting back and forth between the two cities) to join me, and I'm glad I took the time out at lunch for the get-together with Jim and Jim, both of whom I don't get to see nearly as often as I'd like. We caught up on each other's current projects and recent horror/war stories and just generally enjoyed the chance to get together. Then it was back to the Archives for Richard and myself. I had a busy day but did just get through everything I needed for the main project I was working on (the Kilby piece I'd just done a lot on at the Wade the week earlier), thanks to Matt Blessing's generosity with his time and providing access to the materials I needed to see. It was fascinating to read about events I'd participated in from a different perspective, and to see bits of my life preserved in a fashion in the official record.


*Ravenstone Castle, just outside of Harvard, Illinois. Since it's worthy of a post in itself, I'll hold off on further description here.

**the v. one in which Feingold and his challenger had their debate a few days later

Monday, October 18, 2010

Charles Williams' Example for Lewis?

So, despite my not being able to make it to Diana Pavlac-Glyer's talk at the Wade this week

her ongoing work to assert mutual influences between the Inklings came to mind last week while I was working with the Williams papers. I knew Wms was prolific: he usually came out with several books at year he either edited or wrote, along with a slew of articles and reviews and poems. But the checklists and bibliographies I'd seen don't really convey an idea of the sheer mass of material he produced, or just how quickly he worked. The particular piece I was looking at -- preserved in the form of a seven-page typescript -- his personal archivist Raymond Hunt referred to as a 'weekend job', and believed he cd assign to a specific two-day period in which it was written.* The Wade's Wms holdings includes drafts of novels, multiple drafts of many plays, essays, poems, lecture notes, &c. &c. Here's their listing of over four hundred separate Mss and Tss in their collection:

Now, this got me to thinking. Lewis is also remembered as an epically prolific author, but it's often been remarked as curious that he was very slow in getting started. In the first ten years after he became a don, he published only one significant article and one major book. Plus, of course, he researched and wrote his famous lecture series published posthumously as THE DISCARDED IMAGE. It's sometimes been said that at an American university he probably wd have been denied tenure for such a sparse publication record. But that all changed in the late 30s/early 40s (being away from home I can't consult the bibliographies to narrow down the date), after which he became famously productive, issuing a steady stream of articles and books and letters.

Why the change? Well, in as far as anyone has offered an explanation, it's been that somehow his conversion was responsible -- that converting to Xianity lit a fire under him that never went out, and the speed at which he wrote and published was one aspect of this. How do we know, though, that this isn't a case of post hoc prompter hoc? I'd like to suggest another possible stimulus that I think is equally plausible: what if the example of Charles Williams played a role? One of the strongest influences on a writer is the example of other writers. Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Greeves -- the circle of writers the young CSL was most familiar with -- were not particularly productive so far as their publication record went, and often worked on projects for years without getting them published. But Williams, who transferred to Oxford in late 1939 and was in close contact with CSL for the remainder of the war years, wrote quickly and published immediately, exactly as the latter CSL did. I don't think this is the sort of thing that's susceptible to proof, but I'd be interested to see the evidence laid out and see if an interesting pattern may emerge.


*Hunt's twenty-volume set of typed transcriptions of Wms' collected works ran to well over three thousand pages -- apparently all in chronological order, as near as he cd get it. Didn't have time this visit, but I'm looking forward to seeing the originals of these next visit.