Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day 2010

Merry Christmas.

I had all sorts of plans to review Christmas books in the week preceding today and do my first giveaway of a Christmas story written by a friend of mine and expostulate on my ongoing Christmas crisis.  Clearly, none of this happened, though I still do recommend that you pick up a copy of The Firflake by Anthony Cardno.

This is my first Christmas away from my parents.  I'm married now and we must split the holidays between Marckettas and Maurers, New Jersey and Wisconsin.  I've only been out of New Jersey once on Christmas before, though I was still with my family.

It's not bad.  I find myself comparing traditions - they're not so different, though the food is - and trying to come to terms with my Christmas crisis.  A Christmas Carol helped with this.  I bought the book years ago but only got around to reading it this year.  Parts of me found Scrooge not so different from most of us around Christmastime - he's greedy, self-serving, concerned with things more than anything spiritual.  The difference is that he doesn't expect somebody else to give him what he wants.  In some ways, it's respectable.

The Cratchits, of course, showed me what Christmas should be: family, togetherness, gratitude, generosity.  Not Pillow Pets and gift labels and long lists of "I wants."  It's a shovelful of chestnuts bringing joy, rather than some cheap toy that will be forgotten by the next Christmas.

Of course, none of this gives me the answer I'm looking for.  Yes, I want the Cratchit family Christmas but minus the poverty and plus the gifts but without the greed.  Crafts, yes, but how do I send my child off to school saying "Santa brought me a hand-painted ornament and box of cookies"?  The stuff aspect is inescapable if you don't want your child to feel unloved compared to his spoiled classmates.  Hence the crisis.

I'm feeling odd for Christmas day, in case you couldn't tell.  I started reading Rebecca, because that's what I brought with me on the trip, and it's fitting my state of mind perfectly thus far.  Beautiful language, a little wandering, no apparent point yet.  I'm just tumbling up and down the hills and valleys of the words and appreciating them for what they are.  If only I could do the same for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Please, Santa, please!

It's the Christmas edition of Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish!  This week asks the top ten books we hope that Santa brings.  I know, I know - just ten?!

1. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood: Santa already brought me this!  Actually, it was my Secret Santa, aka Bev from My Reader's Block.  I can't wait to read it!
2. 600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster
3. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
4. Room by Emma Donoghue
5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, because I studied English at Rutgers, making this required reading
6. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, because it sounds weird and I like that
7. anything by Orhan Pamuk, who I've been meaning to read forever but always forget about in the bookstore
8. Party Vegan by Robin Robertson, because obviously I'm going to put a cookbook on this list and this one looks amazingly excellent!
9. A book of poetry by Sylvia Plath; I'm not picky
10. Women, Food, and God by Geneen Roth, because this book has been haunting me and I feel like maybe that means something

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emma ~ Jane Austen

Emma was my fourth Jane Austen novel and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t love it.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, Emma is a typical Austin heroine, unique only in the fact that she has financial security without needing to marry.  She is also not interested in marriage – not for herself anyway.  She does, however, spend most of the novel attempting to marry off her poor, little friend Harriet whose background is unknown but surely must be of the highest quality (it’s not, but fortunately nobody above her station is willing to marry her so don’t you worry about any shameful social climbing).  Like many Austen heroines, Emma blunders through this, making repeated mistakes and failing to understand the feelings and opinions of others, nor really care what that others even have feelings and opinions until it’s too late.

*Spoiler Alert!* So it’s pretty much your basic Austen novel, so much so that I figured out Emma’s ultimate husband (and thus the end of the book) four pages into the first chapter, upon learning that “Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse” (662).  For anybody who has ever read anything by Jane Austen, you know that the hero is generally the only person who doesn’t find the heroine to be perfect (except for her inevitable female enemies).  While this is an excellent recommendation for loving a person, it does make any Austen novel you read after Pride and Prejudice (which was obviously your first) somewhat dull.

In general, Emma was a bit of a disappointment.  It took me two weeks to read, despite several multi-hour reading sessions, because some days I just couldn’t bring myself to pick the dull thing up.  The only thoughts of any substance in the novel are just that – thoughts, going on in Emma’s head.  Conversations are full of the weather and the same gossip repeated seventy trillion times over, and long, long passages from stock characters that do nothing but show how like themselves they are.  After Emma’s father’s fifteenth long paragraph citing the benefits to be derived from gruel or the dangers derived from going outside or getting married, we understand that he is a reclusive hypochondriac with no ability to say anything more than what he always says.  The same goes for Miss Bates and sadly, they monopolize more of the book than anybody else.

Like any Austen novel, it does make me incredibly happy to not have been alive back then.  Doesn’t life just sound so dull?  All these people just sit around all day, dressing elaborately and “visiting” to discuss weather and what the neighbors think of the weather and what the weather will probably be tomorrow.  I think being a servant must have been much more fun because at least then you could have gossiped about the color of the mistress’s underpants.

The only real enjoyment I got from Emma was a) figuring out that it was the basis for Clueless and b) finding all of the specific points that Clueless borrowed from it.  Soon, I shall rewatch Clueless and be happy that something so shamefully excellent was at least born of Emma.

Perhaps I’m a little cruel, but seriously?  There is more than one plot line possible and somebody should have told Austen that!  I loved Pride and Prejudice, but both Sense and Sensibility and Emma are just the same story except less enjoyable and with different numbers of daughters.  At least Northanger Abbey was different and even had a son.  Did you know that there were such things?!

Oh, and what is up with Jane being all “I’m sorry, let’s be friends!” at the end?  That is a contrived happy ending if I ever saw one.  Austen was all, “Oh wait, I can’t end the novel without Emma having everybody she likes like her so let’s just have Jane be like ‘Oh it’s all my fault, I’ve always liked you’ and it’ll make sense.  I promise!”  And, can I just say that Mr. Knightley would not be the one to protect Mr. Woodhouse from the convenient housebreakers that showed up just in time to convince Mr. W. that it would be in everybody’s best interest for Emma to marry?  It would be the servants protecting him; that is, if they weren’t too busy giggling over his granny panties.  Because you know that Emma’s father wears granny panties.

I’m going to go read Pride and Prejudice now and attempt to return Jane Austen to her pedestal of glory.  Or maybe I’ll just watch Clueless.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Still Alice ~ Lisa Genoava

I finished Still Alice, Lisa Genova’s first novel, nearly a month ago but am only getting around to reviewing it now.  I could blame this on a lot of things like NaNoWriMo, forgetfulness, or laziness, but in this case, it really had to do with having to sort out my feelings about it.  Still Alice is the story of a middle-aged woman dealing with early-onset Alzheimer’s and its effects on her life and the lives of those she loves.  As soon as I heard of this book, I knew that I would have to read it, and soon.  When I was ten or eleven years old, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it wasn’t long before he was moved into a nursing home and gone forever.  I didn’t understand much of it at the time.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that Still Alice should have had such a hold on me as it helped me understand why and how I lost my grandfather.

To be honest, Genova’s writing isn’t spectacular.  It’s very clear, straightforward prose, lacking in music or beauty in itself.  And you know what?  It doesn’t really matter.  Still Alice may not be remembered for its way with language, but I will always remember it for its effect on me, and sometimes that’s what’s really important.

The plot revolves around the progression of the disease.  Alice, a Harvard professor of cognitive linguistics is just going about her life when odd things start to happen – she loses things that are where they belong, gets completely disoriented and lost minutes from her house, forgets to go to the airport for a long-scheduled flight.  After her diagnosis, life goes on as before, just with more struggles and difficulties.  She still fails to understand her youngest daughter, still attempts to go on with her career, still goes on daily jogs for as long as she can.  This is a novel about life with Alzheimer’s, plain and simple.

I have memories of my grandfather that still pain me.  One Thanksgiving, his final Thanksgiving, he came to our house.  It was the last place he would ever be outside of his nursing home.  My uncle was clearing his place setting and when he moved to clear my grandfather’s dirty paper napkin, my grandfather started shouting for us to call the police, he was being robbed.  On one visit to the nursing home, he stared at me, love in his eyes, and couldn’t find my name.  He knew that he loved me, but he had no idea who I was.  On several occasions, he told us about how he had just had visits from his siblings and parents, who were long gone.  His deterioration was rapid and painful, and not soon to be forgotten.

Still Alice brought this all back to me.  There are simple matters of forgetting – Alice loses a word, forgets a name, loses her glasses.  And then there is a scene in which Alice goes to a class she teaches in a big lecture hall and sits down in the audience.  She sits there twenty minutes, increasingly annoyed, before turning to her students saying, “I don’t know about you guys, but I have better things to do,” and walking out, annoyed at the professor for having wasted her time.  These moments are the most painful: years of her life gone like they never happened and, worse yet, she never realizes the mistake.  I remember visiting my grandmother’s first cousin, also afflicted by Alzheimer’s, in her nursing home.  A man on the floor began shouting at my mother and me for shouting and running through the halls of his hotel.  The reality of his situation had vanished for him, at least for the moment, much as increasingly happens to Alice.

Alice forgets the deaths of her mother and sister, forgets words, forgets where the bathroom is in her own home, forgets who her children are, forgets that the gaping black hole in her front hall is actually a rug she had bought years before.  The disease makes no exceptions, attacking every sort of memory that we take for granted every day.

But it is not all terrible.  In the midst of pain and loss, Alice still has the resources to love.  She still can hold and kiss her grandchildren, can still come to terms with her daughter’s choices, can still establish what she wants versus what she doesn’t want.  While the disease tears through her brain, literally shrinking her brain mass, she still remains who she ever was, and discovers more about who Alice really is.

The novel left me with a question that is significant as the descendant of somebody with Alzheimer’s.  Assuming the information provided to be accurate (and I think it is, considering Genova’s background and the book’s factual nature), it is possible to be tested for a genetic mutation that would determine if Alzheimer’s is in your future.  Two of Alice’s children are tested; her eldest, Anna, who is trying to become pregnant, tests positive and as a result has embryos that are without that mutation implanted in her uterus to guarantee that her children will not inherit the degenerative disease.  Alice is relieved to know that at least these grandchildren will not be cursed with her own affliction and left to wish that she had had the same option – except that if she had done the same, she would not have Anna.  Her middle child tests negative and her youngest child decides not to have the test.  This is a very real question for me – do I have the test?  If I’m positive, do I make the same choices that Anna made?

Right now, my answers are no and no.  I don’t want to live a life of fear and expectation.  I’d rather live right now and let come will come.  I don’t want to be forced to choose one child over another.  A cure may come before it’s even an issue and if not, I believe in living the life you’re given.  I’m not sure if I believe in a god or not but even so, I don’t think it’s in my hands to make those choices.  As little as I would choose a green-eyed child over a brown-eyed, I would not choose a child based on this possibility.  I want to make the best of the life given to me and let come what may.

For anybody who has known and loved somebody with Alzheimer’s, I recommend you read this novel.  It’s sad but powerful, and worth the tears.  It will bring back painful memories but it will bring back the good as well.  Ultimately, pain and happiness are inseparable.  My strongest memory of my grandfather is still sitting on his lap and playing the hand-stacking game, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything, even if it comes at the cost of the memory of loss.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Literary Blog Hop and/or Emma

Literary Blog Hop
Another week, another Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.  This week's question is:
What is one of your literary pet peeves?  Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge?  Be specific, and give examples if you can.
It took a bit of musing for me to come up with an answer to this because while I am often irritated by things writers do, it's not necessarily a consistent peeve.  To draw from some other bloggers' complaints, I may be irritated by the use of he said/she said, but I may also prefer it if done well.  Like everybody has mentioned, I am driven crazy by editorial errors because come on editors, isn't that you job?  (I feel justified in saying that because I have been rejected from so many editorial positions in which I obviously would have put an end to all editorial errors ever.)

The answer came to me last night while I was reading struggling through Emma by Jane Austen.  I know, I know - Jane Austen's so amazing, I've said so myself, what could I find wrong with it, blahblahblah.  Well to be honest, I find it a little dull though productive in that it gave me not one, but two answers to this week's Literary Blog Hop.  Yay?

1) Characters who are merely caricatures.  Are Mr. Woodhouse or Miss Bates capable of being useful at all?  These characters have no depth whatsoever and all they ever say is a continuation of all they have ever said; that is, nothing.  They remind me of Jack Gellar, Monica and Ross's father on Friends, except he at least occasionally shows some emotion that runs beneath the surface of his ridiculousness.  Also, he only show up occasionally and thus is good for an occasional laugh, but Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are there constantly, wasting incredible amounts of space by contributing nothing to the story.  And even when they're in another room, the other characters are talking about them.  Stock characters can be okay occasionally, but when you (cough, Austen) take it too far, it really raises my hackles.
And makes my eyes glow, apparently.
2) Authors who write the same story over and over again.  I've read four Austen novels, in the following order: Pride and Prejudice, which I loved; Northanger Abbey, which I loved; Sense and Sensibility, which I liked; and now Emma, which (to be polite) I am less than enamored with.  Taking Northanger Abbey out of the mix, because it doesn't quite apply, the plots of the other three novels seem to just be copies of one another with names and details changed.  Reading Emma, I can find the equivalent characters in P+P: Mr. Knightley is Mr. Darcy (just poorer), Mr. Elton is Mr. Collins (just hotter), Mr. Churchill is Mr. Wickham (just nothing, they're exactly the same person).  Et cetera.  It was a fun read the first time around, but by now I'm just bored of the same old thing.  Yes, plots are often reused, but this precisely?  At least stick them in another setting or something to make me feel like I'm actually reading something new and not rereading P+P for the umpteenth time.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What To Read...

Most of my books currently live at my parents' house due to the fact that the husband and I live in a tiny little apartment and, well, I have a lot of books.  Thus, every visit to my parent's house usually includes the transport of books in both directions: those that I have read and reviewed return to their home on the bookshelves of my childhood and those that I have any sort of inclination to read in the near future come home with me.  My trip to their house a few days ago was no different.  I was dropping off some books I read recently and intended to bring back A Christmas Carol, which I bought years ago and still have yet to get around to reading.  Alas, to my distress, Dickens's Christmas classic was nowhere to be found.

I searched the shelves above the desk.  I searched the folding bookshelf bought to supplement those shelves when I was in middle school.  I searched the deep drawer of the end table that my mother stuffed a pile of my books into for some unfathomable reason.  Nothing.  So I moved on to my mother's even more massive collection which comprises multiple generations worth of books: two small sets of shelves and two shelves thats stretch to the ceiling.  Nothing.  Throughout all of this I did, however, find several books by Virginia Woolf, Barbara Kingsolver, Jack London, John Steinbeck, George Eliot, and more that I've been meaning to read for years and never seem to get around to.  By the time I found A Christmas Carol in the under-bed storage container, I had filled a bag with about a dozen other books that I now plan to read in the not-too-distant future, meaning that I moved them from my long-term to-be-read pile at my parents' house to my shorter-term to-be-read pile at my apartment.  The husband was not pleased.

All of this is, in a addition to a demonstration of how ridiculous my book addiction is, a lead-up to a post about what I will be reading in the coming year!  So far, I have joined two book challenges that I'm very excited about: The Victorian Literature Challenge and the Back to the Classics Challenge.  For the former, I have committed to read ten to fourteen Victorian-era novels over 2011, the specifics of which have yet to be determined.  For the latter, I've come up with an incomplete, possible reading list based on the given categories, to be completed by the end of June:

1. A Banned Book: Animal Farm by George Orwell
2. A Book with a Wartime Setting: ????
3. A Pulitzer Prize Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
4. A Children's Classic: Peter Pan by JM Barrie
5. 19th Century Classic: Silas Marner by George Eliot
6. 20th Century Classic: The Waves by Virginia Woolf
7. A Potential 21st Century Classic: ????
8. A Book From High School: The Odyssey

Except for The Odyssey, which I never actually read in high school, these are all books that I've owned for years and never gotten around to reading.  My problem is that I can't decide on a wartime novel or a potential 21st century classic!  Help!  I welcome any suggestions.  The problem with the 21st century classic is, I have no way of knowing if it's worthy of that title without having already read it and I want it to be a new-to-me book!  So that category I'm definitely in need of advice for.  Any recommendations for the Victorian Reading Challenge would also be welcome!

I've also made a Challenges! page at the top of the blog where I'm going to track my progress in these and any other challenges I attempt.  Of course, I've also retroactively added my NaNoWriMo triumph because, well, why wouldn't I?

So what's everybody else planning to read in 2011 or will you just be winging it?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Bell Jar ~ Sylvia Plath

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow.  There was a shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.  –The Bell Jar, 165
Now that NaNoWriMo is finally over and I’ve had a chance to recover, I can start catching up on some book reviews!  Specifically, a series of three book reviews which I only call a series because they all feature women considering suicide.  Cheery, I know, and just in time for the holidays!  First up is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath because I finished it most recently and it has the most obvious example of a suicidal protagonist.

This is technically a reread for me, though, for some bizarre reason, I don’t remember half of it.  I remember the first half of the novel, up to the point where Esther Greenwood tucks herself into a hole under the house with an empty pill bottle and lights flashing in her mind, but that is where my memory stops.  I’ve always remembered it as ending there and thus found it curious and suggestive that the narrative is written in the first person but you know what?  There’s nearly another 100 pages after that.  I remember liking the book so I have no idea why I would have just stopped reading.  Has anybody else ever had this happen?  It’s bizarre.

Anyway.  As many of you probably know, The Bell Jar is a heavily autobiographical work based on Sylvia Plath’s own depression, nervous breakdown, disappearance, and suicide attempt while at college.  Much of the novel revolves around Esther’s conflicting desires to be a poet/academic/world-traveler and a wife/mother, which to her are irreconcilable.
Plath wrote it while was raising two small children and, perhaps unsurprisingly, in The Bell Jar there is a reference to the narrator’s baby, implying a recovery of sorts and much more, considering Plath’s ultimate suicide, which she performed with only a door between her and her own children.
My heroine would be myself, only in disguise. (134)
 The novel is just so real.  Esther’s voice is familiar and believable and the way she describes her depression is just so apt for anybody who’s ever just felt overwhelmingly sad without knowing why.  The bell jar covers her, separating her from the world and souring the very air she breathes until she chokes on life itself.

The novel is given its power by the fact that outside of her depression and suicide attempt, Esther is still a real, identifiable person.  Ultimately, who she is is what makes the novel – the novel is the character, not any specific event or situation.  Considering having sex with a random guy just to even the score with her boyfriend, not knowing what drink to order at a bar, her desire to escape and embrace the life she has been taught to live – these features are all very mundane and thus, they are what make Esther Greenwood.  Committing suicide does not make a character complete – it’s what they do and think before that act that shows who they really are and makes them whole.  By being so identifiable, Esther comes to life.

This is definitely a must-read and not just because it’s one of those books that you’re “supposed” to read; it’s a must-read because of how familiar it already is and how much power it will have over you.  It’s certainly not an upper, but definitely worth the sadness.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Literary Blog Hop and e.e. cummings

Literary Blog Hop
For this week's installment of the Literary Blog Hop, which is hosted by the ladies over at The Blue Bookcase, the question is:
What is your favorite poem and why?
Though I'm more of a prose person, for me this question was a no-brainer.  e.e. cummings has been my favorite poet for approximately ever and even writing my high school junior thesis on him did nothing to lower him in my estimation (it may have helped that I got an A++… I'm not kidding).  One of his poems that I wrote about was "somewhere I have never travelled" and it has remained my favorite poem ever since.  For those of you who are not familiar, here it is:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) 
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

One of the things that I always love about cummings's poetry is that it's always kind of like a puzzle.  Poetry in general can tend to feel like that, but with cummings unraveling the puzzle is actually fun, rather than torturous.  He does a lot of fun things with sound and imagery, all while making something that is beautiful and true.  I think it's really a gift to be able to combine these aspects and still produce something meaningful.

So why do I like this particular poem?  Why does anybody like any poem, really?  I like the cadence of it - there is a music in the phrasing that comes from the specific combination of words rather than any tricks of alliteration.  The use of the rose is unique; roses are probably the most cliche thing to write about, but cummings seems to treat them differently, perhaps because the voice of the poem is the flower, rather than the "you."  Generally we hear "your beauty is like a rose" or some such silliness, but here the voice says "I am a rose and you have power over me like the weather over a flower."  The image of a rose opening and closing in response to an outer influence is just so powerful and so apt.  How often do we say "lover, you have roses in your cheeks"?  Not often.  But how often are our moods completely influenced by those we love?  Constantly.  Those we love can be storms or fair days or a sad trickling rain to us, a concept that cummings seems to me to be portraying in this image.  We are the roses.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up

Looking back on last night's frantically excited post, I see that I may have used the phrase "freaking awesome" one too many times, creating reasonable doubt as to the quality of my last month's work.  You know what I have to say to that?  OH WELL.

So it's over, I won, and now it's time to reflect on what actually happened and what I learned and other such things.  First off, my narrative intentions: I'm generally a short story writer but partially out of my own desires and partly in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I decided to try my hand at an extended narrative.  This went okay for a while.  I wrote 20,000 thousand words of a story about a girl who commits suicide, which increasingly bored the pants off of me.  At this point, I decided to start Project #2, a story set in a Superdome-like setting during some undefined disaster about a nanny and her twin charges.  Reading more about Superdome, I decided I hadn't even remotely grasped what that situation would be like and to do so would completely change my story.  Plus, I was bored.  So after 10,000 words of that mess, I returned to Project #1and wrote a short story about the suicide girl's boyfriend which I liked much better, actually finished, and decided to make an independent narrative.  20,000-word prewrite for a 5000-word story?  Whatever works.  Then I decided that I should just work on my in-progress collection of connected short stories and wrote the first drafts of two and the beginning of a third (which I began at around 9.00 last night due to desperation).

My goals in terms of how I planned to reach 50,000 words: I intended to write 2000 words a day, instead of the 1667 that NaNoWriMo recommends, so that I could either end five days early or take five days off.  As you can see, this went fantastically the first week, floundered the second week (due to a death in my husband's family and a sudden departure for Wisconsin), crashed in the third week (thanks to my totally-worth-it Harry Potter party), struggled in the fourth week (due to frustration and loss of interest) and somehow revived itself in the final two days, during which I wrote a combined total of over 7000 words.

So what have I learned?  Discipline, definitely.  I never used to be able to write more than 1000 words in a day (or several days really) and during last month, I once hit 4200 words in a day.  It turns out that a mental lightbulb and a soy chai latte really can work wonders.  I also learned that without that mental lightbulb, your effed and maybe should just take a break (which I could not due because I had a deadline and thus drove myself crazy).  Maybe most importantly, I learned how to push a story forward.  All of the extant stories in my collections are around 2000 words, which is quite short.  The new stories are pushing 7000.  They probably won't stay quite so long (one of them is, admittedly, stuffed with wordcount-extending fluff) but they will still be significantly longer than their predecessors and probably have more significance.  I now intend to go back and see if I can push those earlier stories and see what comes out.  One will remain short, I know that.  The others I think have the potential for a bit more.

All in all, I think that NaNoWriMo was really a valuable exercise in my growth as a writer.  It forced me to take risks, some of which flopped, and to push myself.  I don't know if I will do it again, but I'm glad that I did it this once.

What were everybody else's experiences?  I'd love to hear about them!

Can I have my t-shirt now?  I want to look happy and cocky just like these people:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NaNoWriMo, Over at Last

That's me!  A big fatty-fat winner!  I just finished now, coming in at 50,174 words spread out over FIVE projects but the consensus is that the number of words is more important than the number of projects which means that I WIN!

I will be back with a more thoughtful wrap-up tomorrow, but for now I just want to say that there were many moments minutes days when I didn't think I'd make it to this moment and I feel supremely awesome for sticking it out which meant starting yet another story about two hours ago.  But oh well.  I did it.  And for tonight, I am freaking awesome.

This paragraph is here for the purpose of having my post be as long as my winner's banner.  And it's no big deal because by now I'm freaking awesome at writing filler.  And DONE.  See you in December.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Blogger Hop, Nov. 26-29

I'm having trouble coming up with an original response to this week's Literary Blog Hope over at The Blue Bookcase so instead I've decided to participate in the original Book Blogger Hop for the first time.  Yay for more weekly book blogger activities to participate in inconsistently!  This hop is hosted by Crazy-for-Books and was, I believe, the inspiration for the Literary Blog Hop (though I may be lying about this).
Book Blogger Hop
This week's question is:

"What is your favorite book cover?"
I was actually really excited to see this question!  Of course, the old mantra "Don't judge a book by it's cover" comes to mind, as well as the shameful admission that "I do, I do!"  Because really, who doesn't?  Yeah, usually we read books because of their merit or what we've heard about them or because some teacher makes up, but sometimes we find ourselves wandering around the bookstore just looking for something new.  And how the hell are we supposed to find something new unless we pick up something randomly and what's going to inspire us to pick up something randomly unless it has an appealing cover?  Even when we know what we're looking for, it's not a rare occurrence to choose an edition based on which has the nicer cover.  For example, which edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles would you choose?

Sure, you might choose the Oxford World's Classics edition because they're known for having really excellent footnotes and whatnot but in terms of aesthetics, if you're anything like me you'll be choosing the Broadview Press edition.  The Oxford cover is kind of washed out and boring to look at, with an obnoxious bright red interruption to the image, while the Broadview cover has the lovely contrast of black and white and keeps the focus on the girl, rather than some cow.  The cover information doesn't make such a stark contrast and, though you can't tell from the picture, the book is a pleasure to hold.  It's satiny smooth and of the perfect weight: substantial, but not to heavy to carry around.  So nice.

Though it may not be completely true as I don't have all my books in front of me (they mostly live at my parents' house), I think that Broadview covers are my favorite.  I was required to buy a bunch of them for my beloved Victorian fiction class and I just loved them.  My then-fiance and then-roommate thought I was absolutely insane because I kept pulling them out of the bag and showing them off.

The two tones are beautiful and the really stark images, that don't fade away into background, are just so beautiful to me.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, the helpfulness of the footnotes in these books can be consistent and they are fraught with editorial errors.  They're so nice to hold and look at though that I forgive them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Peace Like a River ~ Leif Enger

I picked up Leif Enger’s debut novel Peace Like a River four years ago and read about twenty-five percent of it before giving up, for reasons that I would not remember years later when coming across a rave review written by The Literate Man.  Going back to the book, it seemed like something I should like, especially when you consider the fact that in that four-year interim I had met, fallen in love with, and married an asthmatic from the Midwest. 

I also should have liked it because of my love for literature about wanderers.  Books like Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, A Walk in the Wood by Bill Bryson, and A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins have always captivated me, and what happens in Peace Like a River?  A family packs up and starts driving around, looking for something, but not sure what they’ll do when they find it.  Sounds perfect.

Peace Like a River is a first-person narrative told by the adult, no-longer-asthmatic, Reuben Land about what happened when he was an eleven-year old with terrible asthma: after a violent encounter between his father and some hooligans who were assaulting his brother’s girlfriend, Reuben brother kills said hooligans.  Davy is arrested and put on trial for murder, but only after the public seems to forget that he had only shot said hooligans after they had broken into his house in the night.  Reuben promptly destroys this defense, causing Davy to break out of jail and become… an outlaw!  Reuben and his prolific little sister, Swede, love this thanks to their love of Western novels.  Their father, an unacknowledged miracle worker, decides to pack his remaining family (oh yeah, mom walked out years before disappointed that her med student husband chose a career as a janitor) and start wandering around in the cold looking for Davy.  Such a good idea.

You know when somebody’s telling you a story and constantly insists on reminding you about things that already happened, because clearly you weren’t paying attention, and then sprinkling the whole mess with a good dose of religious rhetoric, including but not limited to not-very-subtle allusions to The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the dullest reads of all time, proving without a doubt that God exists and that you’re terribly ignorant if you don’t already acknowledge that fact but don’t worry because you clearly do now and it’s all good?  If you like that sort of thing, you will love Peace Like a River.  If not, you may vomit all over it.

It’s a nice little story I suppose, filled with hope and redemption and murder on the high seas horses falling down slopes thanks to obnoxious little boys.  Here’s the thing though: the two main characters (I say main because they are the people that Reuben idolizes and thus talks about the most) are completely improbable.  Reuben’s father, a small-town, soft-spoken janitor, a cliché for a hero if I ever heard one, spends his time running around performing miracles that nobody seems to notice except Reuben himself (like inducing Reuben to breathe for the first time twelve minutes after birth, healing the ugly and mean superintendent who nevertheless continues to be mean just not ugly, cooking up a never-ending pot of soup when company calls), a skill which sadly leaves him when he meets and falls in love with a woman (damn Eve and all her daughters!).  Given this, it’s no wonder that he’s father to Swede, a nine-year old who can produce perfectly metered and rhymed epic poetry as quickly and flawlessly as I can scratch my nose.  The only two believable characters – Reuben and Davy – are given very little stage time except when Reuben babbles on about what a great big brother Davy is for giving him the rifle and letting him shoot his very first Canada goose, or how very terrible a person Reuben himself is but it’s okay because he admits it later and never mind how that poor man was crushed under his own horse thanks to Reuben’s attempt at being devious because he marries Sarah, the domestic/sex slave that Davy rescues, thus permanently setting her on a proper and virtuous path, because obviously the narrator has to marry somebody that’s already appeared in the book because otherwise there would be no closure.  Or something.

I think Peace Like a River had a potential to be good, if the characters and events were more true-to-life and the narrator wasn’t quite so obnoxious.  However, Enger didn’t seem to realize this and I’m left planning a trip to the book trader.  Oh well.  It happens.  I’d also like to plan a trip to the Dakotas because Enger really did make it sound quite pretty and that vein of fire thing would be pretty cool if it actually exists so maybe it’s not all bad.  Maybe.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Being an English Major in the World

As a former English major (I graduated in May), I have experienced a good amount of conflict over my chosen course of study both internally and externally.  What can you do with a degree in English? is a question often posed, often accompanied by a general lack of respect for the liberal arts.  It is also often written off as frivolous, including by me.  Don't get me wrong - I love literature and do think that it is incredibly significant, but sometimes I feel like it hasn't prepared me to really accomplish anything of tangible value in the world.  I'm sure many of you in the book blogging community have had similar doubts and encountered similar doubters, or at least can understand what I'm saying.

To switch gears for a minute: Shop Rite, a local grocery store, offers its customers a free turkey if they spend $300 in the month preceding Thanksgiving.  I remember when they started this program; I was about eight years old and my mother collected something like seven free turkeys that year.  Possibly entirely due to her (and her family of five food-lovers), they began imposing limits in the following years.  When I became a vegetarian and entirely responsible for feeding myself, I was disappointed to learn that there was no veg-friendly alternative to the turkey and that, as a vegetarian, I did not get the same perks as meat-eaters.  In fact, last year I even considered writing a letter but settled for complaining loudly in the store.  About a month ago, I discovered in the circular that this year, they would be offering a Tofurky feast as an alternative for us meat-abstainers.  Though I've never had Tofurky, I was so excited!  Free things, yay!

Despite the fact that I live about a block from another grocery store, I began exclusively shopping at Shop Rite and, on Monday, hit the $300 goal (I was surprised to learn that I only spent $300 on food in one month, even with having thrown a dinner party for eight).  I proudly marched over to the meat department, a mysterious and ominous place, to collect my feast only to learn, to my great chagrin, that they were out.  Great.  But never fear, a shipment is coming on Tuesday!  Come collect your feast then!  Being without unlimited cars at my disposal, I didn't make it there until about 7.30 this morning (Wednesday).  I clutched my pink reusable grocery bag, marched myself back over there, and (it gets worse this time) found cornish hens in the Tofurky slot.  Really, guys?  Apparently, the promised delivery never came.

I went to customer service and asked for a raincheck (which they offer to customers when they're out of advertised sale items) and was told no, there are no rainchecks on promotional items.  By the way, the promotion ends tomorrow and I'll be damned if I'm humping my way over there on Thanksgiving day.  So I was patient.  I took some time before launching my attack.  I grabbed a circular and read the fine print this time.  This is what I found:
No rainchecks for specific brands/weights will be issued if product within the same brand/weight range is available.
Clearly this statement says that rainchecks will be offered if product within the same brand/weight range is not available because rainchecks will only not be available if the product is available, i.e. my Tofurky isn't there so give me my damned raincheck.  The guy at customer service was baffled by this wordplay and went to get the bookkeeper.  She was rather obstinate.  I wanted to shout at her, "I'm an English major, lady!   And I read the fine print!"  I mean, come on now.  I spent four years analyzing language, I think that I can accurately cipher the fine print regarding a free Tofurky.  Despite my righteous anger, I was also delighted to realize that hey, that English major was useful!

Sadly, the bookkeeper was not impressed by my ability to untangle the many complexities of the English language.  However, she was impressed at my demand to speak to a manager (for whom I was already planning to design several word maps providing incontrovertible proof that I was, in fact, deserving of a raincheck for a free Tofurky), at which point a hidden Tofurky was uncovered and I left, happy as a soy clam.  It was like the miracle of the loaves and the tuna-free fishes.

Yes, I know that being an English major isn't what got me a Tofurky; rather, it was my unrelenting pursuit of justice.  But I like to that that it is my skill as parsing text that fueled my righteous indignation and, accordingly, really had everything to do with it.

  • How do you use your English major in the real world (outside of being an English teacher/writer/editor)?
  • Am I justified in thinking that this is some sort of plot to undermine vegetarians and/or turkeys?  Because come on now, there were turkeys all over that store yet they only stocked about four Tofurkies (not including the secret hidden Tofurkies saved for angry vegetarians).
PS. I'm sorry if I you're annoyed that I just made you sit through five moments of nonsense for what promised to be an illuminating nugget of truth on the state of being a former English major, but I spent the whole ride whole from the grocery store (Tofurky in tow) drafting this and I wasn't about to just get rid of it when I realized that it was absolutely ridiculous.
PPS. I'll go toe to toe with you on bird law too.
PPPS. Man I hope this Tofurky is good.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter Gives Thanks

As I mentioned in my review, in the hours preceding the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, I served up a themed feast of Harry Potter proportions.  Okay, it wasn’t quite as amazing as something the Hogwarts house elves could have done and my efforts are, admittedly, shadowed by Mrs. Weasley, but it’s still better than the cooking that the trio did in their tent while traipsing around the kingdom.  And now, my lucky readers, I’m going to show you how to make a meal of equally epic proportions for your own Harry Potter party!  You know, in case you want to have a Harry Potter release party after the movie’s release.  Or, er, for the release of Part Two.

The husband and me Tom Ridde and Hannah Abbott
Costumes made by my lovely sister-in-law!
The following will also show you why Soy Chai Bookshelf, once a food/book blog, has settled into a solely literary-inspired effort.  Suffice it to say that I did not take a single picture of all the food that I served up at the party meaning that we will have to rely on my words to convey the experience to you.  How un-foodie of me.

One more thing – why did I choose to name the Facebook event for my party and this post “Harry Potter Gives Thanks”?  Well, I chose not to give my annual Thanksgiving party in lieu of my super-cool Harry Potter party, but I wanted a nod to tradition.  Also, pumpkin pie.  Most of the food was Harry Potter-inspired, but as intriguing as pumpkin pasties sound, I really just wanted to stick with my own version of the classic American pie.

So the first course was not actually themed, contrary to previous claims.  We started off with a yummy cannellini bean dip from 1,001 Low-Fat Vegetarian Recipes that the husband loves, along with Triscuits and crudités.  The dip is smooth and creamy, impossibly easy to make (all you need is a food processor), and amazing with roasted garlic and just a hint of horseradish.  (I apologize, but I can't find the recipe online and I am unwilling to violate copyright laws.)  Next to this were Shrooms: a recipe for deep-fried herbed cream cheese-stuffed mushrooms based on the Houlihan’s recipe, served with an amazing horseradish dip.  These went over like hotcakes.  Seriously.  After everybody had two each, there was fighting and yelling and talk of a Harry Potter trivia-off to determine what two lucky people would get a third Shroom (sadly, one of the contenders actually hasn’t read the books so, in deference to her, we did not get to showcase our knowledge).  These were a little labor-intensive, so save ‘em for special occasions.  Like the release of Deathly Hallows, Part Two.

Now onto the actual Harry Potter-inspired food.  The next course was an a-freaking-mazing curried pumpkin soup (because pumpkin juice just sounds gross).  It’s smooth and creamy and the perfect blend of sweet and spicy.  I stirred in coconut milk instead of cream just before serving.  It was also nice to escape the normal pumpkin flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg, especially considering the pumpkin pie waiting patiently for its turn to shine.  This is just as good with butternut squash so if you can't find the elusive cheese pumpkin, never fear.  This recipe is also a bit labor-intensive, what with hacking apart a freaking pumpkin, but well worth the effort.

The main course was Shepherd’s Pie, a dish the Hogwarts elves are known to occasionally serve up.  This was good, though not quite as amazing as when my mom made it (so get your mom to make it for you and just enjoy the Harry Potter goodness).  I also served it with sautéed broccoli, a food that I am certain no character in Harry Potter has ever heard of but hey – I like green things.

Dessert was pumpkin pie (which I make with a graham cracker crust…mmmm), or course, and a traditional-ish English trifle.  The trifle is incredibly easy – just take a trifle dish (or individual parfait glasses) and layer your favorite recipe for spongecake with your chosen flavor of pudding or custard, fruit, and jam. You can even soak the cake in booze if you want to be super-crazy.  I used yellow spongecake from Vegan Yum Yum, chocolate pudding from a box, thawed frozen raspberries (it’s November, people), and raspberry jam.  This was even better the second day, so definitely save yourself time the day of your party and make this ahead of time.  If you want to get really fancy, you could make a treacle tart (Harry’s dessert of choice).  I didn’t because it sounds kinda gross to me.  Refined sugar run-off pie?  No thanks.

But wait, that’s not all!  This was an all-adult party, meaning all-adult versions of Harry Potter drinks!  We had cider, like you’d find in a British pub, pumpkin ale (another nod to pumpkin juice), and grown-up Butterbeer!  I know I gave the recipe in another post but it’s just so yummy I’ll give it to you again!

1 oz butterscotch schnapps
1 oz vodka
fill the glass with cream soda
optional: a little bit of cream (I used Silk creamer)
It’s very sweet but very delicious.  If it’s too sweet you can substitute some of the cream soda with seltzer but that will make it less rich, though still yummy.  For the underaged, use butterscotch syrup instead of the booze.

So there you have it!  A Harry Potter feast you yourself can make at home!  To make it even better, threaten to withhold food from your guests unless they wear costumes.  As horribly nerdy and ridiculous as this sounds, it was actually a lot of fun.  We mocked ourselves, behaved sillily (that’s a word, right?), and made fun of the sixth movie, which we had on in the background.  All in all?  A great way to stay awake in time for a midnight release!
Professor Snape and Luna Lovegood;
Luna also had a Quibbler with her!
We also had an “underrepresented Asian” Gryffindor student, an unnamed female Slytherin, and Tonks (kind of), but I am far too lazy to ask everybody’s permission to put their faces on my blog.  In fact, I didn’t even ask the husband (largely because I don’t have to).  Bwahaha, I love being married.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray ~ Oscar Wilde

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

I’ve meant to read Oscar Wilde for a while now, but in that “I should read him to increase my literary cred” way rather than the “I need to go buy this now and not put it down until I’ve finished it” way.  My attitude towards him is now “I need to read more of his work because he is awesome.”  Because The Picture of Dorian Gray is excellent.

I finished this about a month ago, before I even started Dracula.  I am rather behind on reviews.  Part of the reason I’m behind is because while I really loved Dorian Gray, I couldn’t think of anything to say about it and I kept putting off later reviews until I had written this one, which was an easy route to a downward spiral.  Part of the reason is also that I am lazy and busy, two qualities that do not go well together.

The novel is about a young, attractive, simple, vain man who, after an idle thought while regarding a portrait of himself, stops aging.  Rather, the portrait ages for him, also taking on physical evidence of his sins, of which there are many.  He sinks deeply into sins to the point that he is whispered about all over London, among both the high classes who he shares his days with, and the lower, criminal classes with whom he shares his nights.

According to the back cover of the copy of Dorian Gray that I bought (the Barnes & Noble Classis edition), “The novel, in fact, was used against Wilde at his much-publicized trials for ‘gross indecency.’”  After having read this, the quote with which I began this post jumped out at me.  It is as though Wilde had anticipated how his novel could be read, as evident of his own supposed indecencies, and refuted that possibility before it even came to light.  Because Dorian Gray, while a despicable man, is perhaps not so different from the rest of us.  He has the same lusts and desires and vanities, only he fulfills them more than most.  Perhaps reader hated Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde because they did not deny their innermost desires and dared to reveal what they truly are.

This is not to defend Dorian Gray – he is vile, though an excellent character – this is only to suggest Wilde’s deep understanding of the human condition, to the point that he could foresee his own persecution.  It’s an excellent novel, and though I can’t find much to say about it, I do recommend that you read it.  I anticipate rereading it in the future to get a deeper grasp of what Wilde intended.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

My poor blog has been sadly neglected this past week.  Between a last minute trip to Wisconsin last week, preparations for last night’s party, and a trip into New York yesterday morning for a job interview (!), I’ve hardly had time to make lunch (try half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s) or work on NaNoWriMo, never mind read other blogs or update my own.

What’s that, you say?  A party on a Thursday night (that isn’t Thanksgiving or any other holiday)?  What could I have been thinking?  Well at midnight this morning, as you really should know, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One came out in theatres so, instead of my annual pre-Thanksgiving friends party, I decided to have a Harry Potter Gives Thanks party, AKA a Harry Potter release party with pumpkin pie.  Before you start mocking, I think you should know everything: There was themed food (including Butterberr!*).  There were silly signs.  There were costumes.  It was excellent.  But I will save the party post for another day.  This post is about the film itself.

For the uninitiated, in the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and company have left school to hunt Horcruxes, which are objects containing bits of Voldemort's soul.  They are also wanted by the Ministry of Magic, which has been taken over by Voldemort's gang.  Early on they find a Horcrux and then spend a lot of time figuring out how to destroy the darned thing.  There are adventures, betrayals, and a lot of really terrible food.  Though I haven’t yet gotten around to reviewing the book on the blog, it’s high on my list of favorites (probably number three, behind Prisoner of Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince) so I had rather high expectations for the film.

I’m going to say it right off the bat: I didn’t love it.  David Yates, the director, has a thing for montages and flashing images that I just don’t understand.  Sometimes, yes, they’re nice and effective.  There are two in the fifth movie that show just newspaper headlines and images.  These are effective (though I’d argue that two of these montages is one too many) in quickly showing time pass and what happened in that time.  There were probably four (?) montages in Deathly Hallows with different forms and themes, which is just tiring, especially considering they mostly consisted of twisting images and flashing lights rather than anything of substance.  For purposes of exposition, this is just not effective: they need to decide if they want this film to be accessible to those who don’t know the background or not and I just don’t know if it would be.  The rest of us (or maybe just me) want to get to the present action; we don’t need to waste time on special effects that overshadow substance.

I also was not pleased with a lot of the decisions on what to add and what to cut.  Sometimes Yates seemed to just overdo things (naked CGI snogging, anyone?) and cut other details that make the scene what it is (like Great-Aunt Muriel demanding people get out of their seat because she’s 107 or Voldemort showing up in Godric’s Hollow).  I often felt that he was just trying too hard to make the movie his own; yes, little touches and adaptations are good, but sometimes it seemed like he just went after the book with a faulty editing quill.
After Ron is splinched - I love this image.
That said, I did like the movie.  It had a really powerful beginning immediately followed by a heart-wrenching scene involving Hermione, which Yates added), and to great effect.  As in any great film adaptation, Yates occasionally managed to add that thing that while not in the original text captured the essence of it, like George gleefully interrupting Harry and Ginny’s kiss with a toothbrush sticking out of his head hole.  There were also necessary changes made to accommodate the change of format which maintained the same effect of the book, like Hermione being threatened sexually by the Snatcher who finds them, rather than threatened with an unchanged werewolf’s bite.

Overall, I thought that the movie could do with less special effects and more loyalty to the book.  The first half of Deathly Hallows is supposed to be, well, a little boring.  The trio has no idea what they’re doing and they spend a lot of time just trying to meet basic needs and stay alive, never mind act meaningfully.  To be honest, I could have done with a bit more of that, rather than just watching Ron obsess over every word Harry and Hermione speak to one another and leaving about a day in.  The movie did showing them moving around a lot though, which was good (and very scenic!).

It ended in a perfect (though slightly time-warped) spot, essentially where I imagined it would.  The final scene may be a little unclear for anybody who hasn’t read and/or doesn’t remember the book, but still manages to be powerful and makes you want to see the rest.  As I suspected, Part Two will be mostly the Battle of Hogwarts, which is good since so much happens there.  Here’s hoping it’s given its due.

So yes, I enjoyed it and will be going back to see it next month with my mother and sister, and will be buying it and forcing the husband to rewatch it with me about a hundred times.  It’s not quite as excellent as the third or sixth movies, but it’s entertaining and by no means bad.  The only question is will I be screening it at another release party next summer?  I do have the costume already…

*Before everybody and her mother asks, here’s my recipe for Butterbeer:
1 oz butterscotch schnapps
1 oz vodka
fill the glass with cream soda
optional: a little bit of cream (I used Silk creamer)
It’s very sweet but very delicious.  If it’s too sweet you can substitute some of the cream soda with seltzer but that will make it less rich, though still yummy.  For the underaged, use butterscotch syrup instead of the booze.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Literary Blog Hop Week Two and Orlando

So I've been a bit MIA for the past few days due to a death in my husband's family, meaning that we hopped on a plane to Wisconsin and are currently in a perpetual sugar high due to the absolutely amazing soda they have here.  Sprecher's soda is fire-brewed, whatever that means, and contains awesome things like real cherry juice, real honey, and other real flavorings.  It also contains some less amazing things, like high fructose corn syrup, which is why it's a good thing that we don't have this stuff in New Jersey because I would probably be diabetic by now.  Seriously: the cream soda tastes like carbonated cream.  In a good way.  Needless to say, my sugar coma has severely affected my blog and my NaNoWriMo, but I think I'm coming out of it long enough to belatedly participate in this week's Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase.
Oops, wrong picture.  But look at all the deliciousness!
Literary Blog Hop

What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

I've actually been thinking about this question for a few days now and I'm having a hard time deciding what angle to come at it from.  Should I talk about a book that presented such difficulties that I never actual finished it?  Because I have plenty of those (i.e. Anna Karenina and Lolita).  Or, should I talk about a book whose difficulties I managed to overcome (i.e. Tess of the D'Urbervilles)?  And what form of difficulties - narrative, comprehension, or personal issues with the subject?

I think I'll go with a combo deal - a book that was so difficult I initially failed to finish it but eventually persevered through, which presented difficulties both in my comprehension of the subject matter and in the actual reading: Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf.  I first encountered Orlando the summer before my senior year of high school.  Woolf was on a summer reading list where I got to choose the author and the text (minus Mrs. Dalloway, which would be required reading during the course).  This was my first introduction to Woolf and I struggled through about half of it before giving up and writing a "D" essay on it and deciding that I hated Virginia Woolf.  I ended up loving Mrs. Dalloway, which I read months later, and To the Lighthouse, which I read during a Modernist class I took during my freshman year of college.  After these triumphs, I decided to return to Orlando and, with a new understanding of Virginia Woolf, not only finished it but loved it.  This prompted me to try and read The Waves, which I failed at terribly.  Oh well.

So what's so confusing about Orlando?  Maybe it's the fact that the main character lives for several centuries, or the fact that he becomes a she at some point?  Or could it be Woolf's distinctive style which can be difficult to latch onto and to comprehend?  I honestly don't remember much about the specific style of that novel, though Wikipedia claims that "it is generally considered one of Woolf's most accessible novels."  Well screw you Wikipedia!  Oh well… I've beaten it now.  Now to vanquish The Waves...