Friday, July 10, 2009

Wordless definitions: Anticipation

Mmmmm. If I'd gotten a picture of me, going out to water in the morning and staring at the tomato plant, then that would be the definition for impatient. You can't see it, but the cherry tomato plant to the right is also chock full of teeny tiny green tomatoes. C'mon, sun, do that ripening!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Inferno: The Official Haiku* Review

*I lie, it's actually terza rima, but that title doesn't scan as well.

This summer I decided to resume my Remedial Lit Project by covering those classic authors of Western literature who didn't write in English. Sure, I hit Homer and Aeschylus and all those Greeks back in my college Great Books class, and I had great British literature coming out of my ears, but unless they were written in Spanish I didn't get much in the way of foreign-language classics. So last year, after boning up on American classics, I decided I really needed to broaden my basics.

First up is The Inferno by Dante Aligheri (1265-1321), the Italian poet considered one of the founders of Italian literature. His Divine Comedy, of which The Inferno is the first part, is considered one of the world's greatest epic poems. As you can probably tell from the title, The Inferno is Dante's portrait of hell, told via 34 cantos (aka chapters) of terza rima stanzas. (Terza rima=three-line stanzas, rhyme pattern aba / bcb / cdc / ded / efe / fgf / and so on and so on.) In tribute to the original verse, I offer my review in this poetic format:

So Dante takes a little tour of Hell
Sees devils, sinners, and the river Styx
Escapes above to Italy to tell

Of beasts and images that would transfix
The reader, were he not compelled to add
A ton of old Venetian politics.

So all in all, I'd say it's not half bad.

Even if you've never read Dante, you're probably familiar with some of the concepts he elaborates: the virtuous heathens of Limbo (including his guide, the Roman poet Virgil); the gluttons wading in a river of waste; the suicides transformed into thorny trees; the false prophets walking around with their heads on backwards. The torments he concocts for the many different kinds of sinners are both inventive and appropriate. It would be a very fascinating exploration of human sin, except almost all his examples were contemporary figures from his home city of Florence, from which he was exiled in his mid-thirties. I was forced to continually refer to the detailed notes, to figure out whether Ugolino was a Guelph or a Ghibelline, and if the former, whether he was a Black or White Guelph, and whether he was loyal or a turncoat, and ... you get the idea. It was a weird combination of familiar Greek mythology and alien Italian politics, and it was just hard to wrap my head around it.

Of course, I didn't read this in the original Italian. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the 2002 translation by the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who not only reproduces the rhythm of the original (an approximation of iambic pentameter, the old "la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH la-DAH"), he also gets the rhyme. This may mean that his translation is a bit loose in some places, but the sounds! Check out the beginning of Canto III, when Dante is reading the engraving above the portal to Hell:

"Through me, into the city full of woe
through me, the message of eternal pain;
through me, the passage where the lost souls go.

Justice moved my Maker in his high domain
Power Divine and Primal Love built me;
and Supreme Wisdom; I will aye remain.

Before me there was nothing made to be,
except eternity; eternal I shall endure;
all hope abandon, ye who go through me."

Zowie. The whole thing is full of similar instances of beautiful wordsmithing—and it's not all as high-falutin' as the above example, there are also some wonderfully earthy lines as well. If you're of a mind to check out Dante, I highly recommend this version.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Second quarter book report (2009)

Here's the next installment of my anal-retentive detailed review of the books I've read this year. Did I manage to improve on last quarter's total of 23 books? Read on. As before, the parentheses contain the genre of the book and the number of times I've now read it.

Key: F: Fantasy; H: Historical; Hr: Horror; M: Mystery; MG: Middle Grade (ages 8-12); NF: Nonfiction; SF: Science Fiction; SS: Short Stories; YA: Young Adult (age 13+); *not in the last ten years at least.

04/06/09: Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors, (F, SS, 1)
04/10/09: Sheri S. Tepper, The Margarets (F, 1)
04/11/09: Jane Austen and Shane Graham-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (H, Hr, 1)
04/11/09: Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief (YA, F, 1)
04/14/09: Austen, Sense and Sensibility (H, 5 or 6)
04/16/09: Riordan, The Sea of Monsters (YA, F, 1)
04/17/09: Riordan, The Titan's Curse (YA, F, 1)
04/18/09: Riordan, The Battle of the Maze (YA, F, 1)
04/21/09: Various authors, Magical Beginnings (SS, F, 1)
04/26/09: J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (YA, F, 3)
04/27/09: Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (YA, F, 2)
05/01/09: Julia Barrett, The Third Sister (H, 1)
05/03/09: Jane Gillespie, Brightsea (H, 1)
05/07/09: Joan Aiken, Eliza's Daughter (H, 1)
05/08/09: Orson Scott Card, Seventh Son (F, >5*)
05/10/09: Card, Red Prophet (F, >5*)
05/12/09: Card, Prentice Alvin (F, >5*)
05/13/09: Card, Alvin Journeyman (F, 3)
05/14/09: Card, Heartfire (F, 2)
05/20/09: Carrie Bebris, Suspense and Sensibility (H, M, 1)
05/23/09: Card, The Crystal City (F, 1)
05/25/09: Norman Jewison, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me (NF, 1)
05/28/09: Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (YA, F, 1)
06/02/09: Stephen King, The Dead Zone (Hr, 3-5*)
06/07/09: Scott Westerfeld, Peeps (YA, Hr, 1)
06/09/09: Riordan, The Last Olympian (YA, F, 1)
06/22/09: Bob Woodward, The War Within (NF, 1)
06/25/09: Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Horizon (F, 1)

Total: 28 books, five more than last time. You can see I slowed down toward the end of June, wading through the dense (but fascinating) Bob Woodward book on the Iraq war and my current read, Dante's Inferno. (Review coming soon.) Still, all that training on the stationery bike gave me lots of time to read, catching up on 7 current YAs, checking out some Austen analogs, and revisiting some of my favorite fantasies in order to check out the most recent sequel.

If I had to pick a favorite among what I read, it would be difficult; Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series is a hoot if you love mythology; Scott Westerfeld's Peeps is a great, boy-centered antidote to all the Twilight vampire foolishness, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had me giggling nonstop. So a pretty good quarter on the reading front. We'll see if I can keep up over the summer with all the usual madness going on.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My gold medal day

I still have trouble believing those words: my gold medal. Me, a National Champion? In a sport? But all I have to do is look over on the table and see it sparkling at me to believe: I actually did it.

There were moments I wasn't sure it was going to happen. This week at Nationals started a lot like last year: I didn't perform as well as I would have liked in sparring, and ended up with a bronze. Last year I had high hopes for forms competition; I was trying this cool new form (for me), and everyone said I was doing it with lots of power. I made a couple of corrections, kept practicing, and went out and performed it without making any mistakes. When it came time for scoring, though, my marks were barely above average: 8.1s, for the most part, with a low of 7.9 meaning one judge thought I was below average. My total score was disappointing, in the low 24s, good enough for third out of four competitors.

I decided this year would be different. First of all, they changed the rules so that I only had a choice of two forms which I knew: Koryo, a first-dan form with which I've never been that comfortable (and never scored very well), and Keumgang, a second-dan form which I really enjoy, but which I'd been told never scores well because it has no kicks. (Instead it has several crane stances, which look really cool and show off your balance if done right.) Last year I didn't do Keumgang at Nationals, and ended up being outscored by someone who did do it—and not as well as I could have done it, I thought.

So this year when I started heading to several competitions, I thought I might as well try competing with it. I wasn't scoring well with other forms, so why not? And on my first try, at a competition in Milan, I won gold, for the first time since I made black belt. So I continued doing Keumgang at other tournaments, and kept getting gold medals, including one at AAU States. So I felt good about my form going into Friday's competition at Nationals. Still, I felt good last year, too, and ended up with bronze.

I didn't know how much or what kind of competition I'd have until I got to the arena. When they read off my bracket, there were five names, but only three ladies there. That didn't necessarily mean anything, because the missing ladies could have been out doing team forms. Five names means someone doesn't get a medal, but I didn't think that would happen to me. The one lady I did outscore last year was there, and I thought I could beat her again. The second didn't look super flexible (they always score well), unlike the third one, who finally showed up after competing in team forms. She looked quick ... potentially a problem. I put that out of my mind, and last year, and just thought about my own form. Finally, when they decided the fifth lady wasn't going to show, they took the four of us out to the ring. I was to compete last, which is always a good thing. Judges can hold back on scores if you go too early, so if you don't let yourself get psyched out by the competition, going last can be an advantage.

When there are more than a couple of competitors in forms, the judges always have the first three perform before they give out scores. So I sat and watched the first three perform, all doing forms I didn't recognize. The quick lady didn't look as sharp as I thought she might, and the other two were slower but had pretty good technique. They went up for their scores: quick lady didn't score well at all, getting a 24.7 total, while the second lady got a 25.3—mostly 8.4s and 8.3s, with an 8.5 in there—and the lady I beat last year got a 25.1. Then it was my turn.

I went in there and let my body take over. I have been doing this form for over three years now, so all I had to think about was making it sharp: keeping my shoulders straight, my hands tight, and landing my feet and hand techniques together. I was nervous, and felt myself quiver during the crane stances, but never let my foot drop. (Everyone says they looked solid, so it was just nerves.) I finished, then stood and awaited my scores. It started well: 8.4, then an 8.5, an 8.0 (only average?), another 8.5, and an 8.6. They throw out the high and low, so my total score was 25.4, a point better than last year.

I wasn't ready to believe it yet. Did I remember the other scores correctly? Was I right that the other girl had a 25.3? If we tied, they would throw the low scores back in; my low score was lower than hers, and that would mean silver. We lined up to bow to the judges, and they had us step forward in order. Quick lady, then last year's lady, then the third lady ... I knew I didn't finish below the other two, was it really true ... and then they pointed me into the first spot. The judge stood in front of each of them and called, "Fourth place ... third place ... second place ..." and then stood in front of me and called, "First place!" I could hear all the Olympian families in the stands behind me cheering. It was real. I won the gold.

It still feels a little surreal. I'll probably keep the medal in my gear bag for a while, just so I can remind myself, yes, you won gold at Nationals. In the meantime, I've got this photo to back me up; I think it can tell you better than I can just how great it feels to be a National Champion. And that's me, believe or not. I do.

photo by Brentwood Digital Photography