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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