Saturday, December 26, 2009

All I got for Christmas

Sure, sure, we atheists aren't supposed to celebrate Christmas. Rather we are to stay locked in our houses, probably scowling, throughout the many weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that constitute the modern "Holiday Season."

My family and I take a less dire and depressing approach. We have been celebrating Christmas since I was a tiny tot, too young to have memories -- but we do have pictorial evidence. We decorate the house, complete with a tree, always a live one; we give each other presents; we have a nice dinner; we try to be nicer to one another. And yes, certain members of the household let the stress of the days get the best of them.

Some would call us rampant consumerists, still others would call us hypocrites. I try to ignore both and just try to enjoy the extra time together. I like to think of it as the Christian way, with much less guilt, dogma, etc.

But to Hell with all that rhetoric! What happened yesterday, the 25th of December, 2009, at my house? And what did I discover in the shiny red stuff we call wrapping paper? Not surprisingly, plenty of books:

Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow - Historical fiction set in Ragtime-era, turn of the century NYC. I've been toying with exploring the world of Jazz, so this seemed a decent place to start.Besides, the author has the same last name as a personal favorite Science Fiction writer!

A one-volume, paperback "Unabridged" Shakespeare collection - Just what every child dreams to find under the Christmas tree. Sure, it took twenty years, but there it was -- and there I was, misty-eyed. It's large and awkward, of course, but at least it's readable. Lookin' forward to readin' 'em all

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski - What's good for Stephen King and Oprah is good for me. OK, I asked for it on an impulse and I'm not sure what to expect.

The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski - Ostensibly a history of science, though it really covers a wider a span -- it's based on a BBC mini-series of the same name that originally aired in the 70's.

The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles - This book, along with The Odyssey, was bound to pop up on my reading lists eventually. It is just too classic, and I'm too into epic poetry and classical literature. After reading Fagles's translation of The Aeneid I decided to stick with his translations.

The Alien Years and Those Who Watch, by Robert Silverberg - A couple of generic, 70's-era science fiction by an author who never attained huge popularity but did churn out consistently good genre fiction.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Another perfect book to ask for as a Christmas gift. A father and his young-ish son travel across a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's probably rather bleak and sparse, yet I think I'll enjoy it.

I also received a new set of headphone and some slip covers, for my iPod. And a knitting kit!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Chris-- wait, what the fuck is that?

This has been a nice Christmas. It started in the morning, when I furiously ripped my way through wrapping paper and eventually emerged with a large pile of books. I also got a few accessories for my iPod nano. A post on the particulars of this haul is forthcoming.

Then there's the 2009 retrospective, from a book perspective -- naturally. I'll run down the list of books I read this year and try to point out major trends, etc.

Lastly, there is the eternal, hanging question of the future. I wonder what 2010 will hold, in books and otherwise. Maybe I'll manage to fire off a post about that before New Years.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Catullus and His Poems

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 BC - c. 54 BC) was a Roman poet, today known solely for the 116 surviving poems of one book. He was born in Verona, to a father who was at least wealthy and distinguished enough to host Julius Caesar on at least one occasion. Other than that, we know nothing of Catullus's youth in Verona. He reemerges to History when he moves to Rome, probably in his early twenties. There he apparently spent the bulk of his later years, interrupted only by a one-year political stay in Bithynia and perhaps occasional trips back to Verona. His death is enigmatic, as is most of his life. There are no extant ancient biographies of Catullus, so all that we know about his life has been pieced together from analysis of his poems and a few other writers that make mention of him.

Catullus was part of a small circle of poets from Verona now known as the "new poets." So named, because of their propensity for experimentation and, usually, shunning of the old and well-established forms of poetry, especially epics. They were influenced heavily by a similar group of poets from Alexandria who wrote during the Third Century, in Greek. Unfortunately, Catullus is the only "new poet" whose work has survived in any substantial form -- we have less than 200 lines from the others in his circle, combined.

We will never know what we are missing from these lost poets, though Catullus's poems do allow some tiny glimpses and speculation. Catullus wrote love poems, of course, but also fierce, if not always serious, invectives ("hate poems", let's call them), some explicitly erotic stuff, and a few touching condolences. He apparently loved to experiment with meter -- Poem 63, for example, is written in "galliambic" and is the only surviving specimen of its kind. Almost all of his poems stay firmly in the everyday, only occasionally venturing into mythology. His language tends to suit his themes; at least it is not lofty and often contains vulgarities.

Catullus's poems vary in theme and tone, yet they typically portray the Epicurean, upper-crust lifestyle of himself and his friends. Many are addressed, presumably written as mock letters, to one or more of these friends. It is soon clear to all readers that this circle enjoyed and actively sought the "good life" and largely avoided politics, philosophy and other serious, or even occasionally altruistic endeavors.

Still other poems portray his now-famous affair and later break-up with the woman he called "Lesbia," probably truly named Clodia Metelli, another figure of the city's upper class. Clodia was a strong, forceful character, at least a decade older than Catullus, the poet himself just one in a long string of lovers -- today, we might call her a "cougar" or a "man-eater."

Besides her important role in Catullus's book (she features in 25 of his poems), she is also known to history for a scandal. A man named Caelius was one of her lovers, until he decided to break it off. "Hell hath no fury..." and all that, so Clodia soon retaliated by bringing charges against this man in court. Cicero, the famous politician and orator, who just happened to be a political enemy of Clodia's brother, decided to defend Caelius as his lawyer and in the process gave the now-famous speech, Pro Caelio, in which he heavily lampoons Clodia, apparently aiming to destroy her in every manner but the physical. (It's on my to-read list!)

Catullus is never quite so brutal, though he does throw a few biting words, most notably in Poem 37, in which he calls her house a brothel and insults her latest favorite, a Spaniard named Egnatius; and Poem 58, shown below, in which he fancies her a streetwalker.

Poem 58
Lesbia, our Lesbia, the same old Lesbia,
Caelius, she whom Catullus loved once
more than himself and more than all his own,
loiters at the cross-roads
and in the backstreets
ready to husk-off the "magnanimous" sons of Rome.

In truth, she probably never walked the streets as a common prostitute, nor had sex any more often or with more partners than most of her male counterparts. In truth, the only information we have about her comes from a heart-broken former lover; and a grouchy, conservative old man who was using her for his own political gains, and highly disapproved of her and her kind, including Catullus himself. So, Clodia Metelli had the good fortune of being immortalized by two of the greatest and most eloquent writers of Ancient Rome, and yet the bad fortune of often being portrayed so negatively.

But it wasn't all bad! To prove it, I leave you now with another poem, Catullus 5, which is (apparently) his most famous. Heck, it is probably one of the most famous love poems, period -- and I personally love it.

Poem 5
Lesbia, live with me and love me so
we'll laugh at all the sour-faced
strictures of the wise.
This sun once set will rise again;
When our sun sets, follows night
and an endless sleep awaits.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then a thousand, and a hundred more again
Till with so many hundred thousand kisses
you and I shall both lose count,
nor any can from envy of so much kissing,
put his finger on the number of sweet kisses
you of me and I of you, darling, have had.

PS: I found this great website which features all of Catullus's poems, in the original Latin as well as in translation into dozens of languages. Translations are done by volunteers so quality varies, and usually sags. Still, it is no doubt the best of its kind on the web -- for better, professional translation it seems one will have to buy a real-life book.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Meditations (Penguin Classics)My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In writing this book Marcus Aurelius had one strong, guiding principal: to answer the question, "How should a man live?" or, more accurately, "How should I live?" And while he attempted, in true philosophical style, to discuss and explain all aspects of the universe, he doesn't seem to have broken any new ground in most areas. In other words, he was walking roads already heavily trodden by his predecessors and contemporaries, mostly Stoics.

His true triumphs were in the areas of personal conduct and the practical application of his beliefs. You see, he wrote the Meditations as a kind of diary, probably over a period of at least a decade, adding -- and probably removing -- short snippets of personal advice as he went about his life of duty. They were written, apparently, solely for his personal use, to be read again when he was unsure of himself or his actions.

Some of these snippets -- for example, those that speak of "bad" people, or those immovable in their (wrong) opinions -- just wreak of a back-story. What was happening in the emperor's life, personal or political, when he wrote such things? Tantalising thought. Alas, though the Meditations affords a great look into the mind of an emperor, it is nearly barren of political or historical information.

Marcus was clearly an introvert, probably by birth, though his philosophical studies only deepened that personality quirk, into a full-blown belief system. Marcus constantly expresses an urge to busy himself more with personal study and reflection than with the thoughts of others. This might seem egotistical or selfish, but he is rather critical of himself -- and believes that it his and every man's duty to see to the needs of other men. Humans are social animals by nature, he says, and nature is to always be obeyed -- everything that happens according to nature is good. And while he is always highly critical of himself, he is to the end forgiving towards all others. They simply do not understand the errors of their ways, etc.

This, and some of his other thoughts, have lead some to believe that he was a Christian at heart. Yet this is all speculation -- probably empty dreams. Indeed, he may have even had a hand in persecuting Christians, though this was a common practise in those days, and no hard evidence exists to prove it. Still, emperors, even the "good" ones, no doubt personally ordered the executions of dozens of people each week, and many more if we count those done by his inferiors or otherwise indirectly. He surely would have lost no sleep over the deaths of a few thousand "religious fanatics."

In truth, he was the last of the great Pagan moralists. While the continuing rise of Christianity troubled and scared his people, Marcus struggled to fend off the "barbarian" onslaughts on the frontiers while worshipping and revering the dying gods of his fathers. And he tried to be a good man, in the model of the greats he had read about in his books. He believed in only doing things that were useful, and in living frugally. "Even in a palace life can be led well."

How could I not admire this man? Faced with a strange and difficult world, he accepted everything handed to him as given by fate and tried to do what he could. Sure, you might say, it is easy for an emperor to accept a highly hierarchical universe in which everyone has his given place and task. But "Emperoring", at least as he did it, was no easy job. He probably indulged in little luxury and leisure, always with an eye for the welfare of the people.

Sure, Meditations is often, as George Long put it, "obscure", and his language is often unnecessarily lofty and learned. Sure, his work suffers from the same inconsistencies of all the ancient works of ethics that our modern eyes have recently "discovered." Yet I respect this man and feel everyone can learn something from his writings. If nothing else, he tried.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December/January Readin' List

NaNoWriMo was great, but it did severely limit my reading time. And after the breakneck pace of this November, sitting back and relaxing on December 1st seemed a bit dull. So here I am again, with a big list of books to read and even more on my radar. It's a little intimidating, yet fun and exciting -- a little bit like NaNo, in fact.

To Read
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius -- Nearly done, 25 more pages. This one's been on my list for months, though more from a feeling of obligation than irresistible desire. It is unnecessarily convoluted, maybe a little too "learned" for its own good. Though he does love to repeat himself, which aids in comprehension. And I appreciate that he put what he wrote to practical use everyday, yet the philosophy seems to deviate very little from the general teachings of the Stoics. Disappointing. Yet in the end, this book is worthwhile if only as a small look into the mind of an Emperor.

, by Robert Harris -- A "novel of Ancient Rome" in which Cicero's private secretary tells the story, the trials and tribulations, of his master. I'm not expecting Pulitzer-quality stuff, but this might still be a fun way to learn more about Cicero and the late Roman Republic.

Memoirs of Hadrian
, by Marguerite Yourcenar -- A Goodreads friend was reading this, so I borrowed it from the library on an impulse. Its title betrays its premise: another fictional look into the life of a great Roman man. Though the man was Emperor, and the book is told from his POV. I was struck by the book's origins: written in the 1920s and 30s by a French woman, Mme. Yourcenar.

The Poems of Catullus -- As classical literature goes, this is rather fun and fluffy. And it works well as a companion to the Meditations. Catullus was clearly one to love the good life -- to enjoy himself, frolic with his friends, fall for his girls, and through it all, turn blind to everything beyond his little bubble. Poem 5 says: "Lesbia/ live with me/ & love me so/ we'll laugh at all/ the sour-faced/ strictures of the wise."

, by Shakespeare -- My sister and friend had to read this for English class, so I decided to read along. But now they have finished with it -- ready to take a test on it before the holiday break -- and I haven't even started. Oh well, it is on my list.

The Song of Roland -- I'm not quite sure, yet, what to expect from this. I've been into epic poetry lately, the story seems sound, the poetry certainly has its flowing merits -- and yet, it's French. Ouch.

Ruth Hall
, by Fanny Fern -- I have to be quick with this one, as I have it slated as a Christmas gift for a certain someone. It is a 19th century novel, by a woman, that has plenty of original flavor and character to it. No offense intended to the Brontës, Austen, et al., but it's nice to see such a book that doesn't end in a marriage -- and deviates from the familiar pattern in many other ways.

The Gambler
, by Dostoyevsky -- I say, I have to develop some kind of a relationship with the greats of Russian literature. Up to this point, I have not a read a word of any of it. In correcting this situations, why not start with a relatively short work like this one?

The History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours -- I am not jumping for joy at the prospect of reading this. Yet, what other method is better for learning history? As developed as the world of history-writing has become, I still lean always towards the primary sources. If nothing else, they are there so why not read them? Then you can return to the safety of our 21st century.

Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
, by Alan Alda -- Don't ask me to explain why I bought this, or why I like Alan Alda. Really, he is an actor from before my time -- I don't even like M*A*S*H that much. Anyhoo -- this is his second autobiographical book. (No. I have not read the first.)

The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl -- I don't know. More old science fiction, more "humor" and "laughter." How -- cautionary quotes aside -- could that be bad?

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley
Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke
The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
Rock Bottom, by Joe Casey
Abe Sapien: The Drowning, by M. Mignola
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, by Ethan Gilsdorf
The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland
[To read my reviews of some of these and other books, kindly visit my Goodreads review page.]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland

The Gum Thief: A NovelNB: This review contains spoilers.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Gum Thief starts out simple enough, with a middle-aged Staples employee, named Roger, writing in his diary, whining about his life. Then he writes another diary post, this time posing as a fellow employee -- Bethany, a 24 year-old woman who dropped out of community college, lives with her mother, and still wears goth makeup. She soon discovers the entry -- probably by Roger's intent, though it is never explicitly revealed -- and she is, at first, repulsed. But, she decides to write a return note, then another and another. So begins a long relationship, and novel, developed exclusively through written correspondence.

DeeDee, Bethany's mother and a former classmate of Roger (and fellow "failed adult"), soon joins the fray, writing an angry letter to Roger. Like her daughter, she is at first repulsed by Roger but she soon warms -- eventually even leaving care packages, mostly of food, at his doorstep. A few other characters add occasional letters which spice it up: a brief and adorable letter from Roger's young daughter, Zoe; a couple of mean letters to Roger from his ex-wife, Joan; a depressing "family update" e-mail from Joan's new husband. And, of course, there's Glove Pond, the novel Roger is writing, which he divulges to Bethany, chunk by chunk, as he writes it.

Glove Pond, by itself, would make a great story -- as would the main, "real" story of The Gum Thief. Together, the result is greater than the sum of the two parts. Coupland twines them together in such a way that I always wondered what Roger was thinking, what he was getting at, by writing a particular thing in his novel at a particular part in his life. (And, one of the Glove Pond characters is writing a novel, which is strikingly similar to Roger's life -- I enjoyed the novelty of the situation.)

The old timers call this an "epistolary novel" -- the first of its kind I have read, and I must say, I enjoy it. I am struck most by how much is left unsaid. For example, Roger must have a pretty horrible day-to-day life, but we hear only what he wants to say. Things are often more effective that way. My mind was always free to wander on many of the particulars, and the novel wasn't bogged down by trudging depictions of boring, depressing daily life.

Though he may be the main character, Roger remains largely enigmatic. The two new women in his life -- Bethany and her mother -- are the ones who open up the most, while Roger is often content to act the ear. They are always rather direct about their feelings compared to Roger, who hides it all under his little revelations and philosophical insights -- though the ladies are not without their own "revelations." I was perhaps a little a bugged by some of the dumber of these revelations, but soon forgave them. This is, after all, a book of that sort: in which the characters write heart-opening letters to heal, cope, etc.

Less than ten pages in, I was ready to give this four stars. The ending was what really got me and bumped this book up to the ever-rare five stars. Bethany's suicide attempt "came out of nowhere" -- as they so often do in real life. You wouldn't expect this to be a "happy book," yet things steadily get better for the main characters, and the future looks its brightest by the end of the book. Roger, of course, writes a letter to Bethany after her little "accident." He says, among other things, "Bethany, Bethany, Bethany. What were you thinking?" She doesn't seem to know the answer, though it is apparent that she won't try it again.

And so, three poor shlubs, practically non-humans, wasting away, managed to find each other. And, gradually, building on each other's shoulders, they dragged and heaved their ways out of the sludge and drudgery. The final "chapter" -- in which an MA heavily criticizes Roger's novel -- is not the damper you might expect it to be. Rather, it seems he is the loser, the one who "doesn't get it." The fate of the MCs is left appropriately ambiguous, yet I just know everything is going to work out for them -- and I can't help but cheer.

Who knew this would be such a big hit with me? As this review no doubt shows, I was completely immersed. Of course I related strongly to the characters, especially Roger. Besides, now I wonder: what lurks behind the eyes of some of the grunts at my friendly neighborhood super store? It is just like Harry Potter and the endless wizard hunt -- only maybe I won't get laughed at as much for this.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Rock Bottom, by Joe Casey

Rock Bottom My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book fails -- at least as the "epic of human proportions" the back cover proclaims it to be. In reality, it's good, or at least good enough -- meaning, it meets my relatively low standards for graphic novels: attractive visuals (Okay, pretty pictures), an interesting story, and a manageable length (so I can read it in one or two sittings).

In reality, it is not the story of "every man" -- a story which captures and depicts a deep something of human nature to which we can all relate. It is the story of one man: a young-ish musician and recent divorcee who seems a bit of a prick (obviously, he was the one who cheated).

That is, until he starts turning to stone. Yep, stone. You know, I do wish they explained that aspect better, but, though he soon ends up at his doctor's office and they run plenty of tests, we never get anything approaching an explanation on this mysterious new disease. Fine. That's fine. Clearly, the author has gotten a little too used to writing super hero stuff, but it's forgivable.

The guy, the protagonist, soon accepts his fate: there is no hope and he will soon turn completely into stone. I generally liked that approach: there is no denial or fighting against the inevitable, as is so common these days both inside and outside of literature. Instead, the guy tries to enjoy what little time he has left, with the help of his lawyer/best friend and, eventually, his doctor.

There are a few touching moments, and some enjoyable, if not startling, developments and twists. But really, we all know what is going to happen, though the author does manage to spice up the ending a little*.

You know, this could have been better, but I understand how could it have been a lot worse. I don't like an overly-preachy story, especially when it's coming from a comics writer. Nor do like too much sap. Somehow, this GN found a nice balance and pleased me enough to earn itself three stars.

* The guy's friends, using the money they gathered from a fund-raising scheme -- ie, selling off chunks of the guy's petrified body, through infomercials; with his permission -- to erect statues of him in public parks around the country. Then people squabble a bit over which statue is the "real one" -- though that turns out to be in a secluded, tropical location, overlooking a waterfall, the kind of place he'd always dreamed of.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009


What are webcomics? The next step in the evolution of the comics medium? Those annoying, mostly unfunny things that always pop up in Stumble Upon?

Some love 'em, and some hate 'em -- though no one can deny that webcomics have weaselled their way into Internet culture. For my part, I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I read most of the webcomics that come my way, though I rarely go out searching for them. Heck, some are pretty funny -- and they generally take well under a minute to read, so you haven't lost much either way.

Some webcomics are on my "black list" -- meaning I run away screaming every time one crosses my path. Most are in the "hit-and-miss" category, while only one has found itself a permanent place in my heart: XKCD.

It's "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" apparently, and it suits me well. I could analyze why I love it, but let's not waste time -- and, besides, I have a bad feeling about that approach.

Without unveiling the reason(s), we can at least establish that I love XKCD. I am a devoted follower -- I might have its children. So I was surprised, recently, when I discovered a blog called XKCD Sucks. Yes, this little webcomic has a large and devoted anti-following, no less than six or seven gaggles of trolls.

It's no secret, either. Google "XKCD" and there it is, just below the site itself, the Wikipedia page, and the official blog. Within, the bloggers generally devote one post per comic, dissecting and disparaging as they go. This has been going on for a while, too -- since March, 2008.

Honestly, I can't understand it: If you don't like something, don't read it. Yet, I'm content to let them do their thing, go their way. And, in lieu of harassing them, I have decided to pick some of the best and personal favorites amongst XKCD and post links here. So, like the waiters in any cheesy restaurant, I can only say Enjoy! (hopefully)

585 - "Outreach" (Daddy, I want to be a scientist.)
525 - "I Know You're Listening"
353 - "Python"
327 - "Exploits of a Mom" ("Little Bobby Tables")
272 - "Linux User at Best Buy"
208 - "Regular Expressions" (This was hilarious in my Python-dabbling days)
200 - "Bill Nye"
148 - "Sandwich" (The XKCD comic)
225 - "Open Source" (Richard Stallman now owns a katana (!!))
386 - "Duty Calls" (Someone is wrong on the Internet!)

Some Personal Favorites
123 - "Centrifugal Force" (great line from Goldfinger, great comic)
563 - "Fermirotica" ("statistical voyeurism")
506 - "Theft of the Magi"
470 - "The End is Not For a While" ("Things Are Pretty Okay!")
251 - "CD Tray Fight"
178 - "Not Really Into Pokemon"
512 - "Alternate Currency" (very funny alt-text)
616 - "Lease" ("I was thinking about Batman")
387 - "Advanced Technology" (Von Neumann and babies)
538 - "Security" ("hit him with this five dollar wrench")
663 - "Sagan-Man" (RIP! No doubt he's up there, jamming with Freddy Mercury and Michael Jackson.)

So there you are: I wasted a significant portion of my time on this and I may have gotten a few suckers to do the same. Vive la résistance! And Happy Holidays, too!

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Pinky and the Brain" Parodies the Beatles

I rather enjoy discovering and then posting slight oddities such as this. You have to wonder just what the people behind this popular kids' show from the 90s were thinking when they decided to do a parody of The Beatles. Sure, they were and still are cultural icons, but I have my doubts of their appeal and fame amongst the under-twelve crowd of the mid-90s. But I'm not complaining: no doubt their parents got a kick out of it and now it's on the Internet, for all to enjoy forever -- or until it's yanked for copyright infringement.

Now, as I toddle off to see Tania naked (and listen to a bunch of hairy guys prattle on), I have startling news: Tomorrow, a post on XKCD! That should be thrilling...

And yes, as you have undoubtedly already discovered, the boobs are a lie.

Confused? Just watch the video... I can't promise it has all the answers, but it will keep you busy with all its pretty colors and sounds.

Friday, December 4, 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009 Wrap Up

Now that the excitement and challenge of National Novel Writing Month is clearly and safely behind us, we can begin to move on. Ah, but not without at least one wrap-up post! So, here I will indulge in, for one last time, the challenge that took -- stole -- occupied -- a good part of my time and thought during November, 09. It was a fun experience, overall, and most importantly, I did something that I never thought I could -- or rather, I knew I could theoretically, but without any messy experimentation.

Let us first take a look at a few numbers. The people that run NaNo recently revealed some general stats on their official blog, so I figured I would follow them with some of my own, personal figures.
First up, we have my accumulated word count for each day, compared with the expected or required amount. You have to write an average of 1,666 and two-thirds words per day (which is usually rounded up to 1,667) to just barely reach 50,000.

As you can see from the graph, I started out on a strong note, with over 5,000 words on the first day, which I was able to build upon for well over a week, always staying well above the required total. The first sign of trouble showed up on the 11th, when I only wrote 83 words. But I recovered well enough and was able to keep my head above the waterline up to and including the 17th.

Then, on the 18th, the head cold that had shown its first feeble signs the day before gave me its full blast, which basically incapacitated me for the entire day. I did nothing but lay around all day, always under plenty of blankies. Hannah laughed at my habit of periodically moving from couch to love seat to bed. (Did I mention how much I love my darling sister?) I am still amazed by how hard this simple cold hit me -- or rather, how hard I took it. Looking back, I am not sure of how bad it really was -- and I think I may have overreacted a little.

Either way, I did not write a word on the 18th, my first zero-word day. And, despite valiant attempts at getting back on track on the 19th and 21st, I followed with zero-word days on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd -- as the below graph clearly shows.

By the 23rd, I had officially (by telling my mother) given up the challenge. I was over 6,000 words behind, and I figured the climb back to success would be a real pain in the butt. Besides, I thought, I had already written over 32,000 words -- far and away the most I had ever written for any one project; a clear success by any measure.

Less than one day passed before I was right back into it. It was probably the oddest, quickest and most complete reversals of opinion I have ever had. Don't ask me how or why it happened -- though perhaps finally brushing off that nagging cold had given me the energy and spunk I needed. So, despite a weak day on the 27th which I can't really explain, I was able to write steadily to a respectable finish.

That is the story, in pictures and words, of my word count during the thirty days of craziness which some call NaNoWriMo.

I will return, likely on some far-flung date, to the topic of the novel itself, "Henry's Fear." Or rather I will start talking about it -- I have been rather mum on actual, genuine info about the story. But all will be revealed in good time: I am not paranoid or arrogant enough to keep this kind of stuff locked away on my HDD.

It still needs a lot of work, yes, but I am convinced that there is a story there somewhere and I would love to polish it to a shine, and maybe eventually submit to a publisher or twenty. But, for the moment at least, I am content to take a little breather and let the little thing cool for a while.

In the meantime, I've been concentrating on this blog, as well as getting back on track with my reading. I will undoubtedly break 100 books read for this year, which doubles last year's goal. Of course I'm already thinking about 200 for next year: my heart says, "Yes! Please!" while my brain says "Uhm, slow down there..." and my eyes say "Oh, Sh**!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to kick myself for not reading this sooner, and, while I'm at it, give a few kicks to anyone who has not read it yet. I say you're missing out. It's a fun, fairly short, and even goofy artifact of medieval Britain. Good stuff, I say.

It's rollicking and maybe even a little Christmas-y, which makes it fun reading for this time of year. "Festive" is a good word for the opening scenes: Yuletide at King Arthur's Court -- and I feel that this poem never really loses that carnival-like atmosphere. Everything in this poem seems a game: from the initial challenge by the Green Knight, to the hunting scenes, to the unwilling courtship, all the way to the climax (hint: it involves an axe and a green girdle -- *meow*)

And yes, it is goofy, as only the English can manage. I couldn't help but laugh at some of the outdated symbolism, as the above "hint", uh, hints at. The picture of an all-green man barging into King Arthur's court, demanding someone cut off his head? A little ridiculous. But then, when the deed is done, he picks it up and carries the damned thing off!

And the language, with the original Middle English included on the left-hand pages of this edition, has goofiness within it as well. Despite having no clue about correct pronunciation, I gave it a good old shot and I'm convinced that it was more fun that way. Stumbling over those odd but somehow familiar words, often sounding like I had potatoes in my mouth? As a sage once said: you can buy potatoes, but not True Happiness.

This translation by Simon Armitage is also worth mentioning. Though I have no experience with any other translations of this poem, I don't know the language of the source text at all, and I have little info on literary translating in general -- despite all this, I'd say this is a mighty fine translation. This guy, Armitage, seems to "get it." He is completely aware of the feeling and mood of this poem and he does all he can to preserve it. In fact, he seems more intent on holding on to the original feel than the exact, literal translation (As showcased most prominently by his decision to preserve the alliteration; I feel it would not at all be the same poem without that feature, so good on him.)

I had fun with this -- though I assure you, I was always laughing with and not at. Even the inevitable heavy-handed moral and religious symbolism did not dampen the mood. Sure, we all know that the green means something, that Gawain is a hero of this or that kind -- but with a story this good, who really cares? I prefer to leave the criticism to the critics -- I like to enjoy the stuff I read.

I saw the messages there, but they didn't stick out as much as they could. This poem could be compared to a sermon, in that it tries to get religious messages across while still being entertaining. Even in the Middle Ages, you needed a little flare to gain and keep people's interests. The problem with this approach, though -- at least with this poem, and no doubt with modern-day sermons from enthusiastic preachers trying to attract a bigger crowd -- is that it perhaps entertains too much. It's no Bible. (Some people might actually read it.)

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Monday, November 30, 2009

You did it

Dear Abraham,

You did it! By George, you did it! I can't believe you did it, but indeed you did.

Kindest Regards,
Colonel Pickering

PS Proof:

Now join me in a brandy or whatever the devil it is we drink.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving with Carl Sagan Music Videos

Nothing says "Happy Thanksgiving" quite like a musical remix of Carl Sagan quotes. Nothing says "Happy Thanksgiving" like the above video. And yet, please allow me to give it a try: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy your turkey/ham/duck/pork roast/tofu/clams and be thankful, or else.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another NaNoWriMo Update

First on the platter, I have installed a little word-count meter on the right that I snagged from the NaNo website. You'd think they could have gone with a look that was at least remotely attractive. Mind you, there are many many blog themes and looks -- so I guess they aimed to make the widget ugly for everyone, all the time.

Number two on the list: as of this writing, the word-o-meter stands at 23,029 -- with a little still in the tank for the rest of this day. I am not as far ahead as I was, or would like to be, a product of my first major crisis.

Trouble started on the ninth, when I procrastinated until, well, at least 10:00 PM, when I wrote my first word. The next day was even worse. But, I somehow squeaked by, writing a little over 1,200 each day. Two days ago, the eleventh, was a total flop. I managed a jaw-dropping eighty-three words. Woo! I guess I hit what you might call the "sophomore slump" of novel writing. After my initial excess, but still too far from the finish line to see it, I lost my nerve and my desire.

But, hey, I bounced back, with over 2,000 words yesterday and another solid day today. My NaNo sails are now, once again, propelled by a steady wind of enthusiasm. Hell, high water, or even a combination of the two could not stop me. In fact, all that steam might be good for me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Gift From the Stars, by James Gunn

Gift from the StarsMy rating: 2 of 5 stars
Don't quote me on this, but I seem to remember reading a little blurb on the dust jacket that said something like, "This book tells the story of how first contact with aliens would really happen." God, I hope not.

A disillusioned aerospace engineer happens upon the design plans for an alien aircraft inside a book he finds at a used book store. He sets about building this thing and, a decade or two later, he is off to unknown islands in the sky. He is accompanied through all this by the book shop's owner, a generally annoying older woman who has a bad habit of relating their crazy experiences to famous books.

She sails through space on a mysterious spaceship designed by aliens and later spends considerable time in their "lairs," yet she can't seem to tear her mind from the pages of "Alice in Wonderland" and the similar. There is nothing inherently wrong with a character occasionally mentioning hallmarks of literature, but Gunn's approach only annoys the reader and disrupts the story's flow.

So, yes, this is some goofy stuff, not recommended to anyone looking for a serious sci-fi experience. At the same time, I can't recommend this to fans of humorous or absurd science fiction, either -- it takes itself far too seriously.

Try as I might, I can only see Gift From the Stars as a poor attempt by James Gunn at recapturing the relative fame and glory attained in the Seventies by The Listeners.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Video: "The Three Little Bops" Cartoon

I just have a video to post for today, but it's a good one: a jazzy take-off of the classic "Three Little Pigs" story. I'd seen it before, a few months ago, and today decided to dig it up for your amusement and mine. Enjoy -- I know I did.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: Election, by Tom Perrotta

ElectionMy rating: 2 of 5 stars
I am sure I would have liked this more had I not recently re-watched the movie. For some reason, last week my sister broke out the 'ol VHS tape, popped it into our combo player and we plopped down and watched that familiar favorite. And for some reason, I had the urge to read the novel on which it was based.

Too soon. The two versions are rather similar and the occasions on which they differ tend to favor the movie. I get the impression of "touching up," as if the people behind the movie were mostly happy with the story but still felt it needed some tweaking. I am inclined to agree with them. The ending especially, the part that they reworked the most, was very weak and disappointing in the book. I suppose I like it that Mr. M and his wife stayed together but I am glad they cut the whole section on his career as a car salesman. I won't even mention his reconciliation with Tracy -- what was Perrotta thinking?

The book has nothing to offer that is not in the movie. Usually, in the old "Film Vs. Print" never-ending battle, the book has the advantage of length. It can flesh out, expand on concepts and scenes that the movie people are forced to glaze over or leave out completely. But this is a very short, light read, in which Perrotta leaves the philosophy to the old dead guys.

And -- dare I say -- I feel some things were handled much better in the movie. The characters, for example, sparkle more on-screen: we see just how big of a cut-throat bitch Tracy really is, Paul is even dopier and more naive, and even Mr. M gets a shot in the arm from Matthew Broderick's worthy performance.

It is still a good story, but I can't shake the feeling that this book was written mainly for the opportunity of turning it into a much better movie. Hindsight, you know.

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Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWrimo Update

The picture on the left demonstrates a few very important things: my outdated tastes in Internet memes, my love of cute pictures of cats, and my steadily climbing NaNo word count. Stupid cats are stupid, so I suppose I should mention that, as of November 5, I have 12,145 words in my NaNoWriMo piggy bank (read: "word document").

And people said it was going to be difficult! Ha, I laugh at those imaginary people and put proverbial pen to proverbial paper everyday for at least 1,667 words. I have been keeping track of my daily word count and I will break down all of the data in a post at the end of the month. For now, suffice to say that I started out with a bang, 5,000 words on the first day, and have been coasting along since. Perhaps I will have another big push this weekend but it's not necessary: I am around 4,000 words ahead of schedule as it is.

As for strategy, I have none. I have relied on Write or Die a lot, but that is the only tid bit, the only piece of wisdom I have to offer. Everything else has just been bare-bones Write Write Write. You have read it thousands of times before in "How to Write" guides (though they usually throw in a few more tips just to justify their existence), and so have I. But who knew Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Carol Behrman were on to something? Who knew the best way to write is to write?

It has not been an easy experience, this Nah-noo-reye-moh, but it has not been terribly difficult. Reading blogs about NaNo, and reading on the main site that over 80% of last year's participants failed to reach 50,000, I had my worries. I could have crashed and burned -- and hey, it could still happen -- but somehow this fine-looking stud has pulled through. Barring disaster, I will finish handily, maybe a few days ahead of schedule. Which is great news, both for the, you know, satisfaction of a job well done, and the possibility of having a real, live copy of my novel, courtesy of I just learned about that offer today and it has proven to be a strong motivator. Nothing justifies your countless hours of writing a book like a tangible copy, that you can flip through, touch, and hold whenever you'd like.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween and Fundamentalist Christian Comics

Every year on the last day of October we Americans celebrate Halloween -- by dressing up in goofy costumes and either: A) walking from house to house, collecting candy, or B) going to a party and getting stinking drunk. Fun times are had by all, though things weren't always so jolly.

When the United States we know and love was just a little tyke, the Puritans and other strict Christian groups ruled the land. Not surprisingly, they weren't too hot on the whole paganism and devil thing. Dressing up as such despised creatures as witches and devils won you no favors -- sometimes things really didn't work out for you, as Arthur Miller always tells me at parties when he's had a few.

I would thank God that such displays of ignorance are dead and buried, but well, first there is the problem of atheism; and then there is the problem of John T. Chick and his company, Chick Publications. My sister and her friends each received one of Chick's lovely cartoon tracts in their candy bags this Halloween. Entitled "Happy Halloween" (you can read the whole thing at that link -- it seems all Chick tracts are viewable online), you would expect something a little on the light side what with the name and the cheerful-looking witch on the cover.

Instead, we learn about a little boy named Timmy, who goes to a haunted house with his friends and ends up being hit by a car. "At least he's in heaven, right Mrs. Baxter?" If only, kiddo! But Timmy rejected Jesus Christ, and, even though he was a nice guy and all, well, tough shit -- I don't make the rules. So he'll burn in a lake of fire for eternity and all that -- I dozed off a little -- but there's still hope for you! So think about Jesus really hard, read that Holy Book, and don't forget to buy a few hundred more Chick tracts. And, you know, knocking off a few Catholics while you're at it couldn't hurt your chances.

I leave you with my favorite page from this booklet. It was a tough choice but, really, how could anyone write "Welcome to the Abyss, Timmy!" and not burst into laughter?

I also suggest reading some of the other Chick tracts. There's a wide variety from which to choose and, when you're not cringing from the thought that the person who wrote them was completely serious, they can be pretty funny stuff.

My Shot at NaNoWriMo 2009

I've known about NaNoWriMo, the popular writing project that encourages you to write a fiction story of at least 50,000 words each November, for a few years now. It is completely informal, with no entry fee or prizes -- other than the satisfaction of a job well done. The contest seems particularly centred around the website, which features a lively forum, a regularly-updated blog, and other goofy things. The chatter has branched off extensively onto personal blogs and social networks too, and I imagine most people reasonably familiar with the Internet know about NaNoWriMo. I hear there are also a lot of in-person groups and meet-ups around the US -- my local library is hosting on several occasions though I think I'll pass.

Last year I made a very lame, abortive attempt at competing, getting no further than a thousand words and giving it up in a day or two. But now, well I guess I feel more prepared and less intimated by the high word count. Around about the last week of October I decided, definitively, that I would give it another go. So I started outlining, working on an idea, called Henry's Fear, I've had rattling around up there for well over a year.

Sparing the details, two days in and I have around 6,600 words, a good start by any account. Now twenty-eight days and 43,400 words stand before me, and I feel ready to go. Writing a novel: I suppose I can put it on a list of things I've done, to comfort myself on my deathbed, but mostly I just want to write it so I can read it. And maybe I can con one or two people into doing the same.

At any rate, my participation in this event may cut into my posting a little, but never fear! I will definitely write on my progress, and I plan for one or two book reviews. As for The Aeneid, I don't feel quite qualified to write a review of this foundation stone of Western literature but I'll have to write something about it. And lastly, I hope to write about our August visit to Gary Dumm's house, the cartoonist who produced much of the artwork for Harvey Pekar's comic books.

If all else fails I'll be back to my regular posting schedule -- if I ever had such a thing -- by December 1. Now I charge back onto the NaNo battlefield, so wish me luck and may finger cramps stay the hell away from me!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Book Club is Back

Late April of this year, my sis Hannah, our friend George, and I decided to start a little book club. God knows why, though I suppose it had something to do with the three of us coincidentally reading the same book, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, around the same time. And I guess we three have enjoyed reading, separately, for most of our lives -- and we had toyed with the idea of a book club a few times before.

The stars seemed right, so we began with my choice, A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore. I think I needed its light humor after a five-day whirlwind through Jane Eyre. Which I enjoyed a lot, yes, but I am not the kind of guy who can handle these large, old books one after the other. So I break it up -- Dirty Job proved to be a great way to wind down. The two other members seemed to enjoy it too. At least, George had nothing very negative to say, and Hannah has picked up two or three Moore books since. The club was off to a good start.

In early June Hannah picked our second book, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. Yes, the book was as mediocre as the Bullock/Kidman movie based on it. It was a very feeble attempt at "girl-y" fiction -- oh heck, it was a lame attempt at fiction, period.

And that was the end of an era. Practical Magic may have dampened are enthusiasm a little and George dragged her feet with choosing the next book. The club was completely dead during the summer, probably the best time to have a book club on account of the free time. Hannah tried to bring it back with Margaret Atwoods Handmaid's Tale, but ultimately only she read it.

Now it very well could be back, with my selection of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Here's hoping, kiddo.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: The Hard Goodbye, by Frank Miller

Sin City, Vol. 1: The Hard GoodbyeMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought the Sin City movie was great, when I watched it on DVD in 2007... Since then, the wait for Sin City 2 has been a bit of a pain. (OK, I don't agonise about it every second, but it would be nice to see.) I've flirted with reading the graphic novels on several occasions, until I finally got a hold of the first in the series. I'm going to take a leap here and call it the best.

As has been said, the story in this graphic novel was one of three plotlines in the movie. As has not been said, it was by far the best -- in my eyes, it bumped the movie from a C+/B- to a solid A. In a world full of hokey monologues and manly bad-assery, Marv outshines them all -- both in the movie, with Micky Rourke's stand-out performance, and as it turns out, in the graphic novel.

I am a big fan of highly-quotable, "B" movies. Some are so "bad" unintentionally, like Mommie Dearest, while productions like Sin City obviously took a lot of effort to be so hokey. Some people are turned off by the supposed testosterone-fuelled orgy -- I see it all as one big joke. I, and my kinsfolk, were laughing throughout the movie, in a good way.

As for specific scenes, who could forget the opening? (Apparently "She smells how angels oughta smell.") And how about the ending? ("Can we get a move on? I haven't got all night," says Marv in the electric chair.) Two classic moments that serve as the bread to an absolutely delicious sandwich.

Well, I've gone and made this review mostly about the movie, but that isn't completely inappropriate -- the two are remarkably similar. Must be Miller's famed cinematic style, and it couldn't hurt that he had a major role in the production of the movie.

The book has only a few minor differences. Marv never visits his mother in the movie, for example, and of course this GN only includes the one plotline. I prefer it that way -- every time I see Nancy in the book I think of Jessica Alba's horrific performance. I still cringed a little at "Sure, Marv. Who's the babe?"

But, overall, the book is shorter, and sweeter for it.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

The Shakespeare Challenge: A Rundown

Funny how life works. My relationship with Shakespeare was virtually nil -- aside from those infamous mandatory school readings -- until one day in late August 2009, when my sis brought home a big bag of things she had pilfered from her school's Lost&Found. It was mostly old gym clothes and a few coats, but there also happened to be a student's copy of Hamlet in the mix. On a whim, I snatched it and stole away to the smoky confines of my room. (This was probably the best solution as my sister, evil little capitalist that she is, might have made me pay; she made me pay a dollar for a pair of dress shoes from the bag -- wench.) She never made a fuss about it so...

A few days later, I had built up enough courage and free time to begin reading my first Shakespeare play since my high school days. I still have not built a concrete opinion of the play, but I must have enjoyed it -- it was soon followed by Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, and Tempest.

I must have really enjoyed it -- hence the challenge alluded to in the post title: to read every play authored, or possibly authored, by Shakespeare. The goal is, at the very least, to become familiar with the plots, language, and characters. This will likely open the door for re-readings of my favorites and maybe even *shudder* a little literary criticism. The ultimate goal is to see each play live, though I may have to settle for a DVD in some cases. I look forward to exploring the BBC productions, particularly of the more obscure plays, which, so I read, tend to be better-produced than most of the big hitters.

I am not sure when I came upon the idea and I am not sure why I am so enthusiastic, but the conviction is there. I know, from my reading, Shakespeare can be a lot of fun. And at times, no doubt, it will feel like a never-ending slog. I cringe a little at all those history plays -- is Falstaff fat and drunk enough to keep my mind from the drudgery of English history? And just how bad is the greatest English writer's worst work? And can I handle reading about people carrying their own hands? (Horror of horrors, I think I can!)

But I suppose these concerns are merely deck chairs now; I best soldier on with my copies of King Lear and All's Well That Ends Well. Perhaps I will finish this challenge late next year, perhaps as my 2010 New Years resolution (that's kind of my thing now). Or am I doomed to years of wandering?

Until the answer comes, fyi, I am still chugging along with the Aeneid, nearly to Book VIII. I am determined to finish before the month is out -- wild harpies couldn't stop me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review: Flight: Volume One

Flight, Volume 1My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A collection of short comics by an array of people who look awfully hip; I was drawn in by the pretty colors." I wrote that before I started this book and I assure you it still holds true, but I can add a few things:

I read my first graphic novel in early 2009 and I have been hooked ever since, but I am still not sold on the idea of super short graphic stories. Sure, these mysterious little things called "comic books" have done well for themselves, but still, anything shorter than sixteen pages makes me squirm a little.

I generally like my non-fiction short and to the point, while fiction I prefer plump and fleshed out. The old problem of creating a whole world within a short space is terribly amplified when an author has only a few hundred words and some pictures to tell his story. In fact, I have noticed that many short comics have trouble just with telling a complete story -- set aside things like character and world development.

I have read a few fantastic short comics -- including one that will always stick, by Will Eisner -- and I have read a lot of junk. This collection continues the trend, with around five enjoyable, memorable stories from the total twenty-five. The rest, well, some make you wonder what just happened to the time; still others lead you to weakly say, "Good effort..."

Some of these stories have "hipster" written on every page, while others feel oddly mainstream. No doubt these authors are (or were, in 2004) the up-and-coming stars of "underground comics" (that are not especially underground), mixed in with some chaff for good measure. But I feel I must applaud all these authors, for being the movers and shakers, for keeping things moving, if only slightly.

I love the variety of art styles in this book -- yes, some styles more than others, but variety is spice enough for me. And I enjoyed the number of attempts at wordless- or near-wordless stories, a sub-sub-genre that is even less developed and untapped.

I suppose I very easily could have given this two stars, but something about its spunk and vigour made me bump it up to a solid three. If you want something different, something that at least isn't boring -- read this.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

What I Want to Read and Why I Have (Not)

Reading has been slower than usual this month and I do not expect to complete everything I had planned for October. I will still finish the Aeneid, but the Meditations and Pliny's letters will have to wait.

I got a little sidetracked with two Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and The Tempest, and I have some other things on my reading-platter.

First is an interesting character of American history, an artist named Chiura Obata. A Japanese-American painter, he is exactly the kind of person who is interesting enough to read about but does not quite reach the average History textbook. After learning about him from a PBS special on the American national parks, I ordered a book from the library called Obata's Yosemite. It features many of the pictures from his tour of the Yosemite National Park in the 1920's, probably his most famous collection.

I have no great interest in visual arts, but of course I can appreciate these. I hold a special place for Japanese art in particular and I consider the American landscape one of the most beautiful in the world (from what I gather from pictures :). I admit my patriotism runs deep, but I like to think it is only pride in my country and its people -- not thinly disguised xenophobia.

Seeing this Japanese style collide with American scenery is both novel and enjoyable, and clear visual proof of the dualism most Japanese-Americans -- and indeed most immigrants -- must have felt. I will stop short of singing "Kumbaya," but still the book comes recommended.

I also learned, from the same show, about Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt. A brash, abrasive politician, he no doubt was a man who knew how to get things done -- at least he was instrumental in implementing a little thing called the "New Deal." Sadly, I have yet to get around to ordering or reading anything on the man, but at least it has been noted.

Next is Shakespeare in American Life, a catalogue of a 2007 exhibition by the Folger Library. It strikes me as something you are more likely to buy at a gift shop than find in a public library, but that does not make it cheap or useless. It features some dozen or so essays, which, given the nice paper on which the book is printed, I can only assume are scholarly. The essays cover a wide variety of topics, from popular to snooty von snoot. I have already learned much about the beginnings of Shakespeare's enrapture of America and I am oddly intrigued enough to read until the end. I do love Kiss Me Kate and I wonder if any mention is made of Huckleberry Finn's little foray into Hamlet.

Then I have some smaller projects:
  • V for Vendetta -- I do not expect to be wowed out of my socks, but I figure, as long as I am touring the "best of" in the graphic novels department, I might as well knock this one off.
  • Flight: Volume One -- A collection of short comics by an array of people who look awfully hip; I was drawn in by the pretty colors.
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Honestly, I do not know why I am so excited about this one. Long British poems usually ain't my thang, but this looks just goofy enough to work.
So there you have it, a miscellany of books from a miscellany of a man. Smart thought of the day: I could have used the time I spent writing this to read.

Please hold your applause until the end.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Irrelevant Friday #2 (!)

I missed out on IF last week, probably as a result of cosmic wind or brain farts -- or maybe I am just rebellious enough to forgo an outlet for irrelevance that I created. But, hey, I found my way back to vanilla-living this week, so let's begin.

First, in "WTF?!" news, I found a Goodreads account of a man named (apparently) Will Colbert. A 73 year-old man who has been on the site since 2007, he has not found the time to add many books to his profile, yet he has 1,260 friends, most of them attractive young women. Though certain to raise an eyebrow or two already, this story gets weirder

On this man's profile page it shows that he made a thread on a Goodreads group called "We miss Hannah." The group's description says, "Hannah was killed today at 9 a.m." but leaves it at that. The group has only one discussion, the one created by Will, which features many of the group's 29 members writing around like headless chickens. The thread has no clear answers to the riddle of the group name and description, and I, Internet user that I am, am inclined to call the whole thing a hoax. A very odd kind of hoax, yes, but accepting the situation as true only adds a few points to the odd-o-meter.

In technology news, the first alpha release of Haiku OS came out on September 14th. Though I only recently learned about this project, it has sent several shock-waves and thrills through my brain (and hair). Based on the proprietary BeOS, which went defunct in 2001, Haiku has been in development ever since. Just imagine the dedication -- and distinct lack of more interesting things to do -- required to work on a completely free project for eight years, to reach the very first test release. I could never do it, but it least now it seems to be paying off for the developers and the world at large. Haiku incorporates many new features unheard of from the three conventional operating systems. And while it will be many years before the average Joe -- even an average Linux Joe like myself -- can fully enjoy these improvements, it's nice to see something radically new in the open-source world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: The Agricola/ The Germania

The Agricola/The Germania My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A lovely pair these two make. They work well together, first, because they are two of the three minor works still extant from the master Tacitus -- often overlooked in favour of the Histories and the Annals. And, though ostensibly about very different topics -- Agricola is a suspiciously positive biography of the author's father-in-law, while Germania is a quick survey of the German land and its native people -- both offer interesting, though aggravatingly brief, glimpses at the Roman provinces and at the "barbarians" whom the Romans were constantly fighting.

Agricola, probably the less popular of the two, unfurls the life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who made his mark on history mainly through his bloody governorship of Britain and through his good fortune to marry his daughter off to one of the greatest ancient historian. In short, he extended Roman control on the island farther north than ever before, handily defeating a large mass of Caledonians in the process. This success probably made the Emperor Domitian both jealous and nervous, so Agricola's career was cut short by an early, likely forced, retirement.

This work offers us only tiny glimpses at the natives of Britain, and even then tends to focus on their tactics and habits on the battlefield. A natural lack of information -- Tacitus probably never visited Britain and relied solely on Roman accounts of the area and people -- as well as a general lack of interest in the provinces and the "barbarian" cultures, makes this work heavy on minutiae. It is, after all, a biography of Agricola, and the account of his cursus honorum was no doubt interesting to wealthy Romans for hundreds of years, but it makes for less than exciting reading these days.

Germania offers much more to the anthropologists and average readers of today. I imagine it has been picked apart many times, for any little clue that others may have missed. Depicting the Germans as strong, war-like people, Germania conjures images of thousands of half-naked men emerging from an icy forest, ready to do battle. They give a might cry and all rush forward, ready to die for family and country. They are unabashedly vulgar, yet somehow proud. One can't help but think of the word "liberty" and ponder on Eden, as in some ways Tacitus did thousands of years ago. At times, it makes me proud to have some German blood in me, though my cooler head always cuts through the romanticism in the end.

A great pair for any occasion. I will surely return to these in, at the latest, a year or two.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Twelfth Night Performace

Yesterday I finally went to see Twelfth Night, at the Hanna Theatre in downtown Cleveland. The show is part of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and we -- me, my sister Hannah, and our good friend George -- managed to get in on a group rate of $13 each. They were very good seats for that price and the show was just great. But first:

As the director of the festival walked onto the stage to deliver opening remarks he brought with him a big surprise: Tom Hanks. Tom got his start working as an intern at the Hanna and has returned for a few days to help raise the last chunk of money for its restoration. He said a few words, made the audience laugh -- most of the audience. I have never cared much for Hollywood movies, or his in particular. Yet I sensed this to be a momentous occasion. Alas, for Hollywood royalty he looked oddly human. When he left the stage he walked right past us and I wanted to shout something witty to him -- I was leaning towards "I loved you in 'Big'" -- but I chickened out. I managed only to whisper to my sister, "He must dye his hair."

He sat close enough that I could see him comfortably from my seat -- he didn't even know I was watchin' him. He watched some of the play -- just like a real person -- but snuck out sometime before the intermission -- not so much.

But to the play! It was, in short, better than I had hoped -- a play I enjoyed a lot on paper brought to beautiful life. Now I recognise the importance of performance -- especially with Shakespeare since the humor as written is rather archaic and needs a good shot in the arm. Shakespeare provides the ridiculous situations and fancy wording, but most of the big laughs came from pantomime, the unspoken aspects on which the directors have free reign. I was surprised by the number of laughs this play produced, though I was right there with the rest of the audience this time.

In this performance, the two knights, Toby and Andrew, absolutely stole the show. Their plotting and camaraderie eclipses the arguably more important plot lines. But that's just fine: first because this play is all about fun, laughs, entertainment; and second, because the other plot lines are not so great. The Sebastian-Antonio subplot is particularly slow and does not come to comic fruition until the last act.

The gags that produced the biggest laughs:
1) When Malvolio is reading the "love letter" he eventually reads the mysterious letters "MOAI" as "meoow."
2) In the same scene the plotters are scurrying around in the background . When Malvolio finally turns around they pretend to be a fountain and Toby spits water.
3) When Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Viola and eventually hurries him off-stage he turns around and mouths to the audience "Oh my God."

And others similar. Unfortunately, my two favorite scenes from the reading were toned down or at least mishandled. Malvolio's stockings were neither goofy nor yellow enough, and the "sword fight" was surprisingly low key. The ending was handled well, with plenty of uncomfortable moments, though I still think the final song by Feste kills the levity.

It was a great performance by a generally great troupe. I can not bring myself to choose a favorite actor, though the worst performance must go to the actress of Olivia.

The Hanna Theatre itself is an attractive place, as most theaters are, but it seems more intimate than the other ten or so I have visited. The stage projects far into the audience and two of the stage entrances require the actors to walk through the crowd. The place manages a great balance of intimacy and capacity, not sacrificing one for the other. It is perfect for Shakespeare and the director(s) took full advantage of it. Maybe Tom Hank's assertion that the Hanna is one of the best theaters in the world is not so far of the mark. (Send me some money if you want me to prove it.)

When the play was over we had to wait about an hour for out ride so we walked around. The place was desolate, even for a Sunday evening. I know the area well as I used to attend school (high school and college) but two blocks from the theater, and it was as depressing an experience as ever. You can smell the millions wasted -- on lures that never quite catch their suburban prey. For example, mere minutes after the show, the hundreds of spectators had evaporated. My dad's old shop sits derelict just across the street from the empty lot where I once went to school. The county and city governments are as corrupt as ever and the average person just as poor.

But the play was good! I wish I could do this kind of thing all the time.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: Twelfth Night

I finished Twelfth Night yesterday and wrote up a little review of it today.

Wow, this really surprised me. I have read some Shakespeare, yes, but strangely enough this is my first Shakespearean comedy. I was expecting it to me much drier, a string of esoteric jokes that have little foothold on the average modern mind.

I was right to a point -- a few jokes flew right over my head, even with the annotations -- but I was totally unprepared for the bawdiness, the goofiness, the insanity. Some examples: the letter to Malvolio from Maria and friends, and of course the "quarrel" between Sir Andrew and "Cesario" -- that last pair of quotes contains yet another goofy plot line. You, the onlooker, will watch a succession of ill-advised love interests. And you, the onlooker, will discover that Olivia doesn't much care for yellow stockings at all!

As for Feste, the clown, well I think he's just great, my favourite character of the play and perhaps all of Shakespeare (that I've read). His "witty" wordplay -- that usually ends up in a ridiculous mess -- just tickles me all kinds of pink.

I can't wait to see it performed, this Sunday.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Linux and Shakespeare

For the last few days I have been busy installing and fussing around with the new version of Ubuntu Linux, the operating system I use. Sometimes I wonder why I bother with it, but at least, in the end, I managed to un-break my computer (again).

I did manage to get a little reading done, namely book two of the Aeneid and Twelfth Night. I want to finish the former by the end of the month, of course, and I am going to see a performance of Twelfth Night on Sunday so I want to read the play first. I am starting to get into it -- it is Shakespeare -- but I have a stinking suspicion that Shakespearean comedies have lost most of their gusto during the last few centuries. Most of his jokes have to be explained, then they are much less funny and it throws off the whole flow of the play. Many times while reading, I could almost see the wry smiles on the character's faces -- I know it is funny but I do not know why. Just another way Shakespeare makes children of us all.

I also suspect that Shakespeare was not a masterful comedian, even in his own day -- and yes, those grapes probably are sour.

But, but, this is the first of his comedies that I have read (and I'm not even finished), so allow me to zip up my tongue for now, and blab it away a few months from now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

First Thoughts on the Aeneid -- and more

Four days into "Roman October" and I don't have a ton to show for it in the reading department. I have managed to finish the first book of the Aeneid and am nearly done with a slim book called "The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire" by Michael Grant.

On The Aeneid, I do not feel at all qualified to critique this hallowed and ancient piece of literature -- and yet I will. Personally, this first of its twelve books has left me cold. Perhaps it is the translation, but it simply does not ring "epic" in my ears, nor does it jump out as a masterpiece. Furthermore, I can already see that it leans towards real history and away from the exciting mythical aspects that color Homer's works and modern children's books alike, which comes as a bit of a disappointment to me.

I will, of course, stick it out to the end. I have no qualms about setting down an acknowledge classic (everyone has different tastes, I say) but this one has too much going for it in my eyes. It is quite possibly the pinnacle of Roman literature and I feel I should have read it long ago. If I can spend so much time reading my usual trash, I suppose I can free some space in my schedule for a classic or two.

But now, from classic to trash. Michael Grant, well-known and acclaimed writer of books on Ancient Greece and Rome for the popular audience, apparently likes money. At least enough to charge exorbitant amounts for many of his books. In particular, this 150-page hardback, "The Collapse and Recovery of the Roman Empire," costs $30 and is basically a recycling ground for some of the author's previous work. If you were to tally the number of original words Grant wrote for this book, (not including the appendix) I am sure they would fill less than twenty pages.

Organizationally, the book is an absolute mess -- he repeats himself to the point of disgrace. And the book never goes anywhere: he says basically the same thing in the Epilogue as in the Introduction and I, the reader, am not in the least convinced by his conclusions. These assertions are not particularly radical, but he does a terrible job of proving them with, you know, facts and words and stuff.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Irrelevant Fridays!

Yay! The first weekly feature of this blog is now here: Irrelevant Fridays. Consider it an off day, a day I will use to post whatever strikes my fancy -- I aim for interesting, but I am not always the best shot. *smiles*

First up, a poem. Written by an assistant professor at MIT, and all-around smart guy (in a science-y kinda way) Scott Aaronson, it is a cute little rewrite of Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" -- from the other side of the thinking-fence. As a former engineering student who now reads poetry, I am intimately familiar with the endless conflicts between the arts and sciences. It is fertile ground for thought. But for now, enjoy:

When I Heard the Learn'd Poet by
Scott Aaronson

When I heard the learn'd poet,
When the Freudian symbolism, the Biblical allusions, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the themes and styles, to analyze, categorize,

and criticize them,
When I sitting heard the poet where she lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the rational dry night-air, and dropped my copy of Leaves of Grass off a cliff,
And correctly predicted that it would hit the ground in 3.82 seconds.

(To see this poem side-by-side with Whitman's original, visit Aaronson's homepage )

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October Reading List

It is the first day of a new month, an event that has always held an odd significance with me and my family. I suppose it is no more odd than many of our holidays, official and unofficial -- I celebrate Christmas and I am not even Christian , and New Years Eve is truly the granddaddy of new-month celebrations -- but it always feels strange to celebrate a day whose only significance is rooted in an arbitrary calendar system. Such thinking brings to mind the modern, Gregorian calendar, which inevitably leads to thoughts of the Julian calendar and then the Romans in general.

Which, naturally, brings me to the topic of this post: what am I gonna read in October?

The Roman-themed intro should furnish some clues - the Goodreads widget on the right should supply even more. Yes, I have been on a little Roman kick since early August, really a rebirth of my enthusiasm for the topic during high school, spurred on by an extremely enthusiastic Latin teacher.

After reading mostly straight history in September (see my recent reads -- I hope to have reviews for all soon), I have set October aside to explore some of the literary side of Rome. The tentative list:
  1. The Aeneid, by Virgil (the Robert Fagles translation) - I am a little surpised I have not read this foundation stone of western literature before. I am not in a position to comment on this translation, but it is a handsome edition, it is generally praised, and it was produced by two very well-known, respectable classicists. I'll take it.
  2. The Letters, Books 1-7, by Pliny the Younger - I have the Loeb edition of this enduring, little look into the lives of the Roman upper crust. Sounds fascinating
  3. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius - A look into an Emperor's mind -- a Stoic philosopher Emperor at that (don't ask me about proper punctuation; I have no idea)
I may squeeze some more in there. Time will tell.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

AABB: About Abe's Book Blog

Before I start creating posts with some real content, I feel I owe it to myself and anyone else reading this to set down the nature and tone of this blog.

First and foremost, this blog is more a place to dump my words than a holy shrine to books. I doubt it will ever find a wide audience, so I aim to write posts that I - and perhaps, someday, a small circle of readers - find interesting or useful.

Second, this blog is (or will be) closely associated with my Goodreads account. I joined the site in February 2009, and I think it is great for cataloging and discussing books. My only complaint is its lack of a blogging system for the average reader (though it does offer blogs to authors). So I have set about to remedy this handicap with another site I have long enjoyed, Blogger. We will see how that turns out.

As for my reading tastes, please visit my personal page on Goodreads to view (most of) the books I have read since January 1, 2008, as well as what I am currently reading and what I want to read soon. It is a virtual tour of my interests, biases, and tendencies. Some say you can tell a lot about a man's character by examining the books he reads -- I assume you can at least discover what kind of books he likes.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

So it begins (again)

And so, our hero once more returns to the treacherous world of blogging. Can he bring himself to write a post now and then about books and book-related topics? Will he choke and join the ranks of those brave souls who blogged and (e-)died before him? And just how long does it take to make a pickle?

Maybe someday some lone genius will come along to answer these and other pressing questions; perhaps he will make it part of the "Bathroom Reader" series and litter it with funny facts - but that is too much hope. Today, we mere mortals only speculate and I must focus on the humble tasks before me.

Dear reader, boy are you in for a treat.