On Real Poetry

From Fujiwara Teika’s Superior Poems of Our Time (early 13th century):

The students of the art among the younger generation today appear sincerely to think that they are composing real poetry, while actually they know nothing about its proper style. They make a fetish of obscurity, changing what ought to be simple into something difficult, yoking together things that have no relation to one another—perhaps because it has become universal for people to choose the most inappropriate poems as models. For my part, I fully realize that I ought to have a thorough knowledge of poetry, whereas I have merely inherited the fame of two generations. At times I have been treated with honor, at times been spoken of with scorn, but lacking sufficient devotion to this art from the very beginning, I have learned nothing except how to put together a few odds and ends that people have refused to accept as poetry. Although my father’s only instructions to me were the simple words, “Poetry is not an art which can be learned by looking afield or hearing afar; it is something that proceeds from the heart and is understood in the self,” I never even groped my way far enough to experience the truth of what he said. How much the less can I do so now, having crossed the threshold of old age, and sunk to my present wretched condition with many illnesses and deep suffering. I have forgotten the color of the flowers of words; the well-springs of inspiration have run dry. I have not even been composing any poetry at all, so that more and more I have tended to give up thinking about it, and have forgotten what little I once knew.”

Posted in Musings on December 10, 2011 – 12:23 am | Comments (0)

Aesthetics of the Toilet

From Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows (1933):

Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Sōseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eves and trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete, with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saitō Ryokū has said, “elegance is frigid.” Better that the place be as chilly as the out-of-doors; the steamy heat of a Western-style toilet in a hotel is most unpleasant.

Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection. Yet whatever its virtues in a place like a temple, where the dwelling is large, the inhabitants few, and everyone helps with the cleaning, in an ordinary household it is no easy task to keep it clean. No matter how fastidious one may be or how diligently one may scrub, dirt will show, particularly on a floor of wood or tatami matting. And so here too it turns out to be more hygienic and efficient to install modern sanitary facilities—tile and a flush toilet—though at the price of destroying all affinity with “good taste” and the “beauties of nature.” That burst of light from those four white walls hardly puts one in a mood to relish Sōseki’s “physiological delight.” There is no denying the cleanliness; every nook and corner is pure white. Yet what need is there to remind us so forcefully of the issue of our own bodies. A beautiful woman, no matter how lovely her skin, would be considered indecent were she to show her bare buttocks or feet in the presence of others; and how very crude and tasteless to expose the toilet to such excessive illumination. The cleanliness of what can be seen only calls up the more clearly thoughts of what cannot be seen. In such places the distinction between the clean and the unclena is best left obscure, shrouded in a dusky haze.

Posted in Musings on December 3, 2011 – 1:05 am | Comments (4)

What a Whale Is

I’ve started (finally!) reading Moby Dick. The book begins with a series of quotes having to do with whales (including one from Paradise Lost). This is, by far, my favorite:

“The whale is a mammiferous animal without hind feet.”
—Baron Couvier

Indeed it is, Herr Baron. Indeed it is.

Posted in Musings on December 2, 2011 – 4:00 am | Comments (0)
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Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson

Cover of Winesburg, Ohio

Rank: B+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2011

Author Name: Sherwood Anderson

Review: Well, I thought myself quite clever when I dreamt up comparing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Jean Toomer’s Cane. Turns out the comparison is so commonly made that it appears on the Wikipedia page for Winesburg, Ohio. So much for that.

Winesburg, Ohio is a (short!) collection of short stories which take place, for the most part, in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio (not to be confused with the real town of Winesburg, Ohio, which is farther north than the fictional Winesburg). Most involve, in some way, George Willard, a young man who is, apparently, Winesburg’s only reporter, but otherwise, each tale focuses on a different resident of the town of Winesburg, Ohio. Structurally, there are no surprises, so you shouldn’t expect any if you pick this one up.

The surprise (for me) in reading Winesburg, Ohio came in the interiority of the characters Anderson describes. It rather reminded me of something written by Tove Jansson. Every single character—perhaps every resident of Winesburg—is filled with a terrible, quiet desperation. Each of them is near their breaking point, and quite a number of them reach it. It’s as if the town itself has driven all of them insane—not in any cheap Stephen King sort of way, mind you, but in a subdued William Faulkner sort of way. (One wonders, in fact, if Anderson had any influence on Faulkner, reading through these tales of repressed anxiety.)

Though the collection is short, the book could hardly have been longer without becoming a bit monotonous (or without breaking the mood). The standouts, as I see them, are “‘Queer’”, “Hands”, “Tandy”, “The Strength of God” and the “Godliness” stories. Given the length of this collection, I highly recommend it.

Something that’s been troubling me, though, is the place that Winesburg, Ohio occupies in the history of literature. It’s on the Modern Library’s top 100 at number 24, which is a good thing, because I don’t think I would ever have heard of it otherwise. If Winesburg, Ohio does anything that’s rather different, it “is franker about sex than most novels of the time”. Indeed, “[p]erhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life”.

Oh, wait a minute. Those words were written about Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street—you know, the much celebrated novel that’s 44 places lower on the Modern Library list and was published one year later.

Having read both Main Street and Winesburg, Ohio now, I must ask: Why the hell does Main Street get so much attention?! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt was a high school favorite), but absolutely everything that Main Street is praised for is something that Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio did first—and better. I mean, come on: Frank discussion of sex? Winesburg, Ohio makes Main Street read like a church bulletin! And the town of Winesburg is the Everytown, U.S.A. that Lewis’s Gopher Prairie purports to be—it even has a main street called Main Street! And not only that, the reader gets the message (“small towns aren’t bastions of wholesome morality”) without the author having to shove it in your face. And the book is shorter, to boot!

Listen, I may talk a lot of malarky sometimes, but if there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: There is no reason to read Main Street in a world where Winesburg, Ohio exists. The latter does what the former attempts to do, and does it better and in fewer pages—and it did it first. If I could, I’d grab the year 1920 and shake it vigorously by the shoulders and tell it to pay better attention to 1919—or, even better: I’d go back in time and tell Ben Huebsch to call the book Main Street, rather than Winesburg, Ohio. Let Sinclair Lewis try to publish a book called Gopher Prairie and see how successful it is!

Posted in B+, Reviews on November 25, 2011 – 12:23 am | Comments (0)
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1919, 2019…

I’m currently reading Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (great so far!), and I came across this passage I thought I’d share. Bear in mind this was published in 1919:

In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.

So this was close to the turn of the 20th century, and Anderson’s talking about how books and magazines had people’s minds “filled to overflowing”. I wonder what he’d think of the internet…? If he were alive, perhaps we could start the conversation thus: “So, the good news is that books, magazines and newspapers appear to be on the way out! The bad news…”

Then we introduce him to Twitter.

Taking the claim seriously, though (all that “information overload” noise), I think we, as a people, are doing fine. Granted, as a person living in the modern era I can’t possibly be unbiased, but there are plenty of moments of quiet still about—and plenty of opportunities to remain naïve. After all, though the information is out there, no one’s forcing it down our throats (despite what popular alarmists would have us believe). If you turn off the computer and the TV and the cell phone, it’s quite easy to take a break from the world. So far, we haven’t got anything that plugs directly into our brains, and we can still command those brains to do what we will.

So, pish-posh to those new age alarmists, I say! My mind is still my mind, and no pressure I feel from external sources is going to change that.

Posted in Musings on November 13, 2011 – 3:24 am | Comments (0)
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Let the Games Commence!

It’s on!

Fresh off his recent victory, Dave is ready to take on Will (Il Miglior Fabbro) in a brand new podi of the Great Reading Competition! This time, we’re reading books that come off of one of two lists. We’re excited about it—and you should be too, because this year, we’re going to be donating 50% of the pages we read to underprivileged books that are too short. Yes, I’m talking about books like Forest of a Thousand Daemons and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s a drop in the bucket, we know, but one day, hopefully all books will be as long or longer than Journey to the West.

Posted in The Great Reading Competition on November 1, 2011 – 12:00 am | Comments (0)

Le Morte d’Arthur

Thomas Malory

Cover of Le Morte d'Arthur

Rank: A-
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2011

Author Name: Thomas Malory, Sir Thomas Malory, Thomas Malorie, Sir Thomas Malorie

Review: For those who’ve been following my Le Farce d’Arthur series, it should come as no surprise when I say much of Le Morte d’Arthur reads like a comic farce. That said, the book is still good, and is definitely worth reading at least once in one’s life.

Le Morte d’Arthur is not actually one long epic about the life and death of King Arthur, but rather a collection of stories of the knights of the Round Table fused by Malory into a somewhat coherent tale.

We begin with the conception of Arthur, Arthur as a boy, and the early days of Arthur’s kingship, but thereafter, what happens more often than not is Arthur and the knights of the Table Round are at court, when some old man or some “damosel” comes wandering in and foists a quest off on some unsuspecting knight who then goes on to be the main character for a hundred or so pages.

Mind, this isn’t bad—if you settle down and let Malory take you where he’s going to take you, it’s a hell of a toboggan ride—but if you’re anything like me (who knew nothing beforehand of actual Arthurian legend or Malory), what you expect is a coherent tale of King Arthur and exactly what happened to him and each of his knights separated neatly into different chapters and episodes that one can easily keep track of. That’s not what you get, though.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what the book is. Le Morte d’Arthur comprises several larger stories: The early days of King Arthur’s reign, and how he came to it; the romance of Tristram and Isolde (or Isoud); the story of the Holy Grail; the romance of Lancelot and Guenever; and the death of King Arthur. Intermixed are myriad tales of the other knights (Gawain, Lamorak, Palomides, etc.), all of which came from diverse sources. In weaving all of these stories into one large tale, Malory probably bit off more than he could chew (the book is chock-full of chronological impossibilities and half-told tales [cut off in the interest of “saving time”]), but what he produced is quite an accomplishment, nonetheless, and highly enjoyable.

Part of the unexpected enjoyment for me came from the downright silliness of a lot of the episodes. For example, after Arthur becomes king (after the early part of the book), he’s portrayed as a kind of…idiot, is I guess the word I’m looking for. He’s completely oblivious to much of what goes on (including the fact that Lancelot and Guenevere are professed lovers—and are pretty much the whole time he’s married to her, and everyone knows it but him), and is more often than not insulted right to his face but is too stupid to realize it.

In addition, though, there are lines that are just priceless, and which, I contend, could not have been unintentional. For example, at one point in time Tristram is taken prisoner and suffers in prison for awhile. He’s finally released, and happens upon the castle of Morgan le Fay. He asks for lodging, and she lets him stay, and she gives him “good cheer all that night” (note: “good cheer” doesn’t always mean sex, but I’m pretty sure here it does, as that’s the only thing Morgan le Fay does). Then in the morning he wakes up to go, and all of a sudden, she says:

Wit ye well ye shall not depart lightly, for ye are here as a prisoner.

And Tristram’s response to this…

Jesu defend! said Sir Tristram, for I was but late a prisoner.

…left me dying laughing.

Le Morte d’Arthur is full of stuff like this. And it also includes the most hilarious knight: Sir Dinadan, the cowardly (or so I’ve dubbed him). There is once or twice where Dinadan performs as a knight should, but most of the time what happens is Tristram says, “Come, Sir Dinadan! You and I shall joust with yonder thirty knights!”, and Sir Dinadan says, “Nay, there are too many. I will wait here while you have ado with them.”

And yet Sir Tristram loves him! Tristram can’t say enough about Dinadan and how courageous he is, and what feats of arms he’s performed, and so on. And yet he does nothing courageous—even when presented with the opportunity! Look at how he reasons why he shouldn’t joust here:

How now, said Sir Tristram unto Sir Dinadan, dress thee now and revenge the good knight Gareth. That shall I not, said Sir Dinadan, for he hath stricken down a much bigger knight than I am.

And here he doesn’t even bother giving an excuse:

Then Segwarides asked: Who shall joust with me? I pray thee, said Sir Gareth unto Dinadan, let me have this jousts. Sir, said Dinadan, I pray you take it as for me. That is no reason, said Tristram, for this jousts should be yours. At a word, said Dinadan, I will not thereof. Then Gareth dressed him to Sir Segwarides, and there Sir Segwarides smote Gareth and his horse to the earth. Now, said Sir Tristram to Dinadan, joust with yonder knight. I will not thereof, said Dinadan.

What a coward! It’s just comical!

Anyway, aside from the fact that the action described in the book is redundant (someone is borne over his horse’s “croup” 26 times; the word “smote” occurs [literally] over 600 times), it’s a good time out, and I encourage you to read it. But I can’t depart without commenting on a few things.

First (and I don’t know a way to put this more delicately), the entire series of episodes having to do with the Sangreal (the Holy Grail) are boring. The knights themselves act quite differently throughout the ordeal, as if they’ve put on their Sunday best to perform this holy task. Even Malory makes note of the change once the knights return having successfully captured the grail (read the second paragraph here). I think the entire Sangreal section could have been cut from the book.

Second, there are two episodes that, I think, are truly gripping—and both felt to me like they came out of nowhere. In a book that doesn’t take itself very seriously and doesn’t dwell on sorrow in a non-superficial way, these two scenes were outstanding. (And, of course, I can’t seem to find one right now, so I’ll just have to talk about the other.)

Launcelot, as we all know, is in love with Guenever, King Arthur’s wife. They have romantic episodes together, but otherwise, Guenever is married and Launcelot is single. It comes about that he lodges at a castle where there is a younger girl who falls head over heels for him. Her name is Elaine: the Maid of Astolat. She begs Launcelot to wear a token of hers in an upcoming joust, and even though he never wears tokens, he decides to do so this time so that he won’t be recognized—but that’s it. This, however, is the greatest thing to ever happen to Elaine (in her mind), and she puts a lot of store in it. When Launcelot is going to depart, she begs him to marry her…and he refuses. She then offers to be his “paramour” (which would bring great shame to her), just so she can be with him, and he still refuses. For the love of Guenever, who is, again, another man’s wife (and, in this book, at least, none too likable, at that).

And so he leaves her, and Elaine dies of grief.

And then—just to make it even better—she instructs her father to lay her in a bed in a boat and float her corpse down the river. In her hands she holds a lily and a letter explaining how and why she died. This boat then floats down past Camelot, where Arthur et al. discover her.

Man! What a sequence. And all for Launcelot, who is quite unworthy of her attentions. Malory handles the death of Elaine beautifully, and the scene is truly a standout in an otherwise light-hearted romance.

Finally, there’s one last utterly fascinating issue that I have to comment on: the theme of identity throughout the book—in particular as exemplified by Tristram. What an…utterly bizarre character Tristram is! From the very first, we get a hint of what’s to come, when Tristram goes to Ireland and rather uncleverly “disguises” himself by changing his name to “Tramtrist”. And yet it works! No one knows who he is, and so he goes off and gets La Beale Isoud for his uncle to wed (falling in love with her both naturally and magically along the way).

But that’s just the start of it. For the rest of his life, Tristram engages in what I can only imagine to be a private practical joke with everyone he meets. In this world, we are, I think, to believe that no one is capable of remembering what anyone else looks or sounds like. So if a knight grabs a shield that isn’t his own, he’s suddenly a stranger. And just about every time anyone (even King Arthur—even his friends!) ask Tristram what his name is, he refuses to tell them. Then he makes a game of it. He’ll often refuse to give his name until the other guy gives him his name first. And even then he refuses!

As a modern reader, I have no idea how I’m supposed to interpret this. I refuse to believe that people back then were that stupid (and, after all, La Beale Isoud always knows who he is), so this gamesmanship must be doing work in the text. But what?

Part of it seems to be Tristram’s need to prove himself again and again—but for what reason, I can’t say. It seems like wherever he goes he wants to eschew his reputation so he can win it all over again. One might surmise that he does so to get the jump on his enemies (if they don’t know who he is, they might take him lightly), but, oddly enough, it seems like all knights are able to size up another knight just by looking at him. They may not know if a given knight is Sir Launcelot, but just at a glance, they can tell that he is “one of the noblest knights of the world”. So I don’t buy that explanation. It must be something else.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that Tristram himself simply doesn’t take anything seriously—and that this, perhaps, is ultimately his undoing. That is, he does things and figures, “Eh… It’ll work out in the end.” He falls in love with La Beale Isoud, for example, but then gives her to his uncle to marry. He didn’t have to. I think he simply assumed that it wasn’t a serious matter, marriage (and with an example like Guenever and Arthur, who could blame him?). Likewise, in battle, there’s no one that can match him but Launcelot. Whereas Launcelot displays doubt in battle on occasion, I don’t think it ever occurs to Tristram that he could possibly lose. And perhaps to give him more of a challenge, he hides his name so the knight he’s jousting with won’t give up at the start. And as for when he isn’t doing battle (e.g. when simply meeting with Arthur at the Round Table), I think he just doesn’t care. After all, no one there can beat him; why not mess around with them?

The whole issue of identity is a tangled one and deserves more attention than I’m going to give it here, but I couldn’t leave this review without commenting.

Anyway, Le Morte d’Arthur is long and silly (and at times dull and repetitive), but it’s a work that has influenced so, so, so many. And despite its flaws, it’s quite worth reading. After all, in what other work will you find the word “enthronization”?

Posted in A-, Reviews on October 9, 2011 – 5:01 am | Comments (2)
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Autumn, 2010: Pentad I Redux (Final)

Autumn, 2010: Pentad I Redux

Towards the end of our last competition, Will and I concocted a plan to give our Great Reading Competition a bit of structure. We decided to separate our Great Competition into sets of five lesser competitions (what I’ve been calling legs). A set of five podia (the new name for a single leg derives from the Greek word πoδι) now comprise a pentad. Furthermore, the final competition of each pentad will serve a very specific purpose.

You see, in the course of our competitions, Will and I accumulate books we intend to read during a given podi, but, invariably, we run out of time and are unable to start them. The final podi of a pentad, hereafter, shall be known as a Pentad Redux (a properly Latin term applied to an otherwise properly Greek word). This will give us the opportunity to read any book which fits the categories of any of the previous four podia. It will be a fitting send off for each pentad, and will also give us time to reflect.

This particular podi, Pentad I Redux, will run from October 1st, 2010 to October 1st, 2011, giving Will plenty of time to get back to work over at the junior university he’s attending, and give me plenty of time to come up with excuses (I’m beginning to think I can’t win one of these anymore). With that, let it begin!

Final Scoreboard

The Autumn, 2010 competition has been completed. The final scoreboard is posted below:

# Title/Author Date Read Pages # Title/Author Date Read Pages
1 The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin (Eastern European) 11/14 82 1 Völsungasaga by Anonymous (Epic) 12/9 320
2 The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche (German) 11/14 144 2 Eugene Onegin by Aleksander Pushkin (Eastern European) 12/24 201
3 The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov (Eastern European) 12/25 346 3 The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard (German) 12/27 104
4 The Cloak of Dreams by Béla Balázs (Eastern European) 1/3 171 4 The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (Eastern European) 2/16 304
5 The Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (German) 1/21 230 5 Njal’s Saga by Anonymous (Epic) 2/26 355
6 Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (Eastern European) 4/20 485 6 The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio by Don Juan Manuel (Spainish) 4/3 230
7 Concrete by Thomas Bernhard (German) 4/20 156 7 Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (Eastern European) 4/10 400
8 Jewish Stories and Hebrew Melodies by Heinrich Heine (German) 9/5 145 8 The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Eastern European) 5/16 314
9 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal (Eastern European) 9/5 117 9 Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (Eastern European) 7/13 448
10 Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German) 9/17 344 10 Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (Epic) 9/30 938
Total: 2,220 Total: 3,614
Average Book Length: 222 Average Book Length: 361


The winner of the fifth and final leg of the First Pentad of the Great Reading Competition (Autumn, 2010: Pentad I Redux), and the coveted Golden Egret, is: DAVE. Congratulations to me for actually winning a legitimate competition!

The Golden Egret Award: Autumn, 2010: David J. Peterson

Note: There were a whole lot of firsts in this competition. Here are the highlights:

  • Though Will lost the competition, he once again claimed First Blood by dusting off The Hedgehog and the Fox in relatively short order.
  • For the first time in the competition’s history, each combatant read the same number of books: 10. As a result, the title of Tome Swallower belongs to neither!
  • Dave had the highest book length average and also claimed the Longfellow by reading Le Morte d’Arthur. (Interesting Note: This is the second time Le Morte d’Arthur has won one of our combatants the Longellow!)
  • Dave achieved a number of firsts and bests this competition. He set a new personal best by reading three books in a single month, and achieved his best completion streak by completing four books in a row. He also set a personal best by reading 10 books in a single competition and reading 3,614 pages (almost 2,000 pages better than his previous best)—both marks either tied or set a competition record.
  • Collectively, Will and Dave shattered previous records for books read in a competition (20) and pages read in a competition (5,834). They also equalled a mark (three times, no less!) by reading four books (combined) in a single month.
  • As always, it’s worth mentioning that Will’s still attending graduate school, and is, by all accounts, reading 4,000 pages a night. Even so, I suspect he had time to either defeat me, or give me a run for my money. His forbearance is noted and appreciated.

So Pentad the First has come to a close, and Dave was able to reclaim some lost honor after the utter drubbing he received in the last competition. Since this is the last leg of the pentad, below are some comments and stats on Pentad I.

Pentad I Stats

Looking back on the competition, it is my solemn duty to pronounce WILL the Miglior Fabbro. Will won three of five legs of the first pentad, and also outread Dave both in books (34 to 28) and pages (9,793 to 9,223). Dave maintained the higher average (329 pages per book vs. Will’s 288 pages per book) and won a greater share of the minor technical awards, but when it comes to sheer reading prowess, Will was the better man.

Below is a rundown of the final stats of Pentad I:

Pentad I Statistics (1/16/2008 to 10/1/2011)
Category Will Dave Total/Best
Number of Books Read 34 28 62
Number of Pages Read* 9,793 9,205 18,998
Average Book Length (to the Nearest Page)* 288 329 306
Most Books Read (Single Competition) 10 10 20
Most Pages Read (Single Competition)* 2,949 3,614 5,834
Highest Average Book Length (Single Competition)* 426 451 378
Most Books Read in a Month 4 3 4
Most Pages Read in a Month* 2,075 1,293 2,299
Longest Book Read (in Pages) 938 1,150 Don Quixote
First Blood 2 3 3
Longfellow 2 3 3
Tome Swallower 2 2 2
Joan Collins Special 0 1 1
Glorious Victories 3 2 3
Longest Completion Streak 10 4 10
Longest Win Streak 2 1 2
Greatest Margin of Victory (in Pages) 1,656 1,394 1,656
Fastest Finish 1 Day 1 Day 1 Day

* Note: It was decided mutually that books of non-epic poetry would count for half the number of their total pages, seeing as the text of many poems do not take up even half of a full page.

Back to Previous Competitions

Posted in The Great Reading Competition on October 3, 2011 – 12:00 am | Comments (0)


Suzanne Collins

Rank: C+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2011

Author Name: Suzanne Collins

Review: The final book in the Hunger Games series ends satisfyingly enough. It ends, and the characters, to a large extent, are finally left alone.

After the events of Catching Fire, our 17-year-old heroine Katniss finds herself part of some rebel plot hatched by the supposedly destroyed District 13 to overthrow the evil Capitol. The District 13 folk are portrayed as an underground-dwelling-control-freak of a society dominated by an impassive President Coin, who plans on using Katniss as the centerpiece of a propaganda/media campaign to instill rebellious feelings in the hearts of the Capitol-hating people of Panem. They even outfit Katniss in a “Mockingjay” costume (a type of futuristic bird), give her some fancy Rambo-like bow and arrows, and have a camera crew follow her to film her heroic exploits and grand speeches. It’s silly, I know, but that’s what happens. Katniss doesn’t particularly like District 13’s regimented schedule or their many rules. Socialism with Panem characteristics?

Katniss spends a large part of her stay in District 13 wandering through the corridors and being belligerent to everyone, which the reader assumes is attributable to her PTSD and disappointment at losing/failing to save one of the loves of her life. Actually, during the first two books, one was led to believe that she pined for some other guy, but whatever. Mockingjay is basically about Katniss trying to be a good rebel without a cause, rebelling against the Capitol, District 13, and her friends who try to steer her towards fulfilling their ultimate goal of winning peace. Sadly, Katniss, whose quasi-craziness and hostility to all grows old really fast, has devolved from the cool, self-sacrificing girl in The Hunger Games, to the innocent girl caught up in the crossfire of dueling forces in Catching Fire, to a whiny, battle-scarred reality TV star in Mockingjay.

There’s no third hunger games this time around, but killing opportunities abound. Towards the end, Katniss volunteers for an assassination mission in the Capitol, which results in the deaths of most of her companions (except for her camera crew) and yields no useful benefits since the rebels end up not needing her help at all. Then, after all the fighting is just about done, Katniss decides to go and senselessly kill someone out of an unfounded sense of revenge. It was kind of unbelievable and a letdown. Anyway, Katniss chooses one of the two lover boys as the one for her, and the book allows them to live in peace in the countryside, raising kids in a world free from hunger and televised killing games. The final sentence of the book induced a groan.

Overall, Mockingjay’s saving grace is the fact that it ended the series, though there are numerous loose ends that went ignored at the end. It’s nice to know we needn’t read any more (prequels probably aren’t ruled out. Since there were over seventy hunger game competitions before book one, there’s enough material in there for plenty of books). I didn’t love Mockingjay, but I didn’t hate it, and I rather liked the peacefulness and contentedness finally realized by the characters. As for the writing itself, no improvements are made in the third book, but it still glides along with ease. I managed to finish the entire series in a span of one week even while holding down a full time job, participating in L.A.’s terrible commute, and watching reruns of Peep Show every night. Even though the Hunger Games series isn’t perfect, it was entertaining enough. So you might as well give it a go—at the very least to spark a bit of shared conversation with your teenage kid.

Posted in C+, Reviews on October 2, 2011 – 6:25 pm | Comments (0)
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Le Farce d’Arthur, Part VI

At the point in the book I’ve reached, the plot has shifted to the quest for the Sangreal, which, interesting though it may be, is not nearly as humorous (either intentionally or unintentionally) as the rest of the book. Nevertheless, I have come across one priceless section.

So Galahad, who is constantly referred to as “a maiden pure” (how about that: a man being referred to as a woman, and the association is a positive one!), is the one knight deemed worthy enough to be able to “enchieve” the Sangreal (the Holy Grail). We’ve already heard how he gets his shield; there are then several chapters devoted to how he gets his sword—the sword of the “strange girdles”. There’s an entire backstory with a boat and some king that goes along with it, but I found the sword itself—as it is at the time that Galahad encounters it—to be the most interesting. Here’s what happens:

Then Galahad beheld the sword and saw letters like blood that said: Let see who shall assay to draw me out of my sheath, but if he be more hardier than any other; and who that draweth me, wit ye well that he shall never fail of shame of his body, or to be wounded to the death.

Kind of a lot to write on a sword. But then let’s see what’s written on the “strange girdle”:

And the letters said: He which shall wield me ought to be more harder than any other, if he bear me as truly as me ought to be borne. For the body of him which I ought to hang by, he shall not be shamed in no place while he is girt with this girdle, nor never none be so hardy to do away this girdle; for it ought not be done away but by the hands of a maid and that she be a king’s daughter and queen’s, and she must be a maid all the days of her life, both in will and in deed. And if she break her virginity she shall die the most villainous death that ever died any woman.

But, hey, we’ve all got stuff like that written on our girdles, right?

And as if Malory knew how much I was chuckling up to this point, the very next sentence reads:

Sir, said Percivale, turn this sword that we may see what is on the other side.

Oh yes: There’s more on the back!

And it was red as blood, with black letters as any coal, which said: He that shall praise me most, most shall he find me to blame at a great need; and to whom I should be most debonair shall I be most felon, and that shall be at one time.

Apparently they used swords as parchment back then. Here’s an approximation of what I think it might look like:

A sword with writing on it. Original photo by Flickr user Albion Europe ApS.

And here’s the “strange girdle”:

The strange girdle with text. Original photo by Wikipedia user StromBer.

In the midst of (let me admit it) a truly boring section of the mighty Morte, this was a nice breath of fresh air. My hat is doffed to you, Malory.

Posted in Musings on September 28, 2011 – 7:26 pm | Comments (0)
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