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...

Monday, November 8, 2010

NaNoWriMo Week One Recap

So as I mentioned a few weeks ago, this year I have been participating in NaNoWriMo.  Yesterday marked the end of the first week and probably the most prolific week of my entire life.  In the first six days, I wrote 13,046 words and on the seventh day I rested (much like someone else of whom I've heard tell).  Also, by "rested" I mean was super-lazy in the morning, went to a play in the afternoon, and drank and fell asleep in the evening.

ANYWHO.  It has been an interesting experience thus far.  I've forced myself to write in a very different way than ever before.  Generally my writing "process" includes checking my e-mail/facebook/twitter/blogs for about a half hour while stuff goes on in the back of my mind, then writing anywhere from one to two sentences and then starting the whole thing over.  While this sounds tedious and awful and a ridiculous waste of time, it does have the bonus of allowing me to really choose my words and phrasing before I type anything.  That's not to say that I don't edit; I edit like crazy, but the first draft generally isn't quite as terrible as I think my NaNoWriMo is.

Doing NaNoWriMo and reaching my self-imposed goal of 2000 words per day (which allows me five rest days) has meant just forcing myself to spit out whatever drivel comes into my head.  In terms of word count, this has worked.  In terms of quality…well, I'm not so sure.  My story actually bores me at times (like right now, which is a large part of the reason that I'm writing this post) though there have been a few moments when I've been right there and the words come naturally and I feel like I'm writing something that could actually become something.  If you know what I mean.

I think that even if this project turns out to be little more than drivel that's not even worth the effort of editing, it has still taught me some things about just sitting down and writing that I can hang onto.  Like: just suck it up and do it.  Also: it's actually possible to write in your own home without a $4 cup of chai.

And maybe, just maybe, it will have potential or at least some parts that are salvageable.  For now, back to work.  I have another 1000+ words to write for the day.  Wish me luck!

How have everybody else's NaNoWriMo experiences been?  I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on it though if you just want to bring me down about it, feel free to say nothing.

PS. You can track my progress with the handy little widget in my sidebar.  Also, if you're doing NaNoWriMo feel free to add me as a buddy - seeing other people's progress helps me with motivation.  My NaNoWriMo name is SoyChaiBookworm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Literary Blog Hop and The Beggar Maid

I was planning on posting a pumpkin-related tribute to Vegan MoFo today, despite the fact that I am not participating in Vegan MoFo due to NaNoWriMo.  I now feel the need to insert a whole bunch more morphemes here, (are they morphemes?  I don't think they're phonemes and they must be something.  Just plain old syllables?) but I will resist the urge.  RaPaDiDo!  Sorry about that.  It won't happen again.  Anyway, the pumpkins shall wait for the weekend thanks to a new Literary Blog Hop that I just discovered and feel the need to participate in as yet another means of procrastinating on my NaNoWriMo (FriLa!  PiGo!).  I'm actually quite excited about it because it can be difficult to find the "literary" bloggers out there and while I do love Harry Potter, I generally prefer to stick to the "literature/fiction" section of the bookstore that nobody's really sure what to name.  So, what is this Literary Blog Hop you ask?  The answer, in the words of its creators:

Welcome to the first ever Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase!
This blog hop is open to blogs that primarily feature reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion.

How do I know if my blog qualifies as "literary"?Literature has many definitions, but for our purposes your blog qualifies as "literary" if it focuses primarily on texts with aesthetic merit. In other words, texts that show quality not only in narrative but also in the effect of their language and structure. If your blog focuses primarily on YA, fantasy, romance, paranormal romance, or chick lit, you may prefer to join the blog hop at Crazy-for-books that is open to book blogs of all genres. (Note: if your blog does not fit the above qualifications it may be removed from the Linky list. If you still don't know if you blog qualifies, email us at thebluebookcase@gmail.com)

I think Soy Chai Bookshelf qualifies, even though it's also about food and writing and Harry Potter.  If you disagree… well, you can just eat my poo, can't you?  I could e-mail them to find out but that seems ridiculously snobbish especially since I already know that I like literary fiction and that's good enough for me.

This week's assignment:

Answer the following prompt on your blog: 
Please highlight one of your favorite books and why you would consider it "literary."

By now, I think it's pretty well understood that people like Jane Austen and Bram Stoker and George Eliot wrote "literature."  Therefore, I'd rather talk about somebody who's still kicking that's also earned that lofty word.  My first instinct was Margaret Atwood, but I think that three posts devoted to her in the last couple of months is enough, so instead I'm going to talk about Alice Munro, another brilliant Canadian writer, and her famed collection of short stories, The Beggar Maid.

The Beggar Maid is, unlike much of what we generally consider to be "classic," a collection of interconnected short stories.  It can be read as a novel - the same characters appear throughout and grow as the stories progress - however, it is not a novel.  Each story is complete in its own right and can stand alone and be read completely independently of the surrounding stories.  The writing itself, one of the most important determinants of the term "literary," is powerful.  Munro describes the mundane - a child stealing a bag of candy from her stepmother, a train trip, a first boyfriend - yet successfully makes these daily, relatively boring events come to life in her portrayals.  Rose, the protagonist, is as real as you or I, with the same wants and desires and secret longings.  Munro does an incredible job of making the quotidian captivating.

If you think about it, "literature" often portrays the daily lives of its characters; it's not about the action, but the people and the words.  This generally makes it difficult to summarize: The Beggar Maid is about what?  It's not about stealing candy or failed love affairs or a secret crush - that's not fodder for a book.  It's about the human condition, what makes us us, the beauty of a word.  The same can be seen in most of the great literature throughout history.  Magic and guns and intrigue are all well and good, but it's the honoring of the individual and language that make literature what it is, and it's what Munro has done in The Beggar Maid.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Year of the Flood ~ Margaret Atwood

I’m writing you tonight from the depths of NaNoWriMo hell.  Because I’m spending this month feverishly writing thousands of words that will inevitably need several more months of editing, I won’t be doing quite as much reading as usual.  However, I still have some books yet to be reviewed, so I will still be writing about books, among other things (like vegan yummies!  It is Vegan MoFo after all).  First up is The Year of the Flood.

The Year of the Flood is the second installment of the amazing Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy, following Oryx and Crake.  It moves outside of the luxurious compounds of the future world, into the, poverty-ridden, dangerous pleeblands, to depict the near-end of mankind through the eyes of the God’s Gardeners, a recently formed religious group that prophesied the waterless flood.  They are a group that appeared in Oryx and Crake, though there they were depicted as little more than crazed vegans; in Year of the Flood, they are fleshed out, proving themselves to be merely people of a different (and stronger) belief system.  They are a community of mostly like-minded people who sustain themselves with extensive roof-top gardens, mushrooms that flourish in dank basements, and honey they harvest from their own bees.  They practice and teach their children sustainable living methods, natural healing (which includes honey, maggots, and poisonous mushrooms), and how to eat meat (acknowledging that it may someday be necessary for survival).  The God’s Gardeners are an oasis of conservation in a world of waste, salvaging the remains of a society gone very, very wrong.

The novel switches between three characters: Toby, a former “typical” pleeblander, who is rescued from a physically and sexually abusive employer as an adult by the Gardeners, and whose story is told from the third person; Ren, who was brought to the Gardeners as a child by her mother, and narrates in the first person; and Adam One, who founded the Gardeners, and whose narration consists of a series of second person addresses to his followers.  Adam gives interesting insight into his beliefs and ideology; his chapters are short and sweet and serve to mark time.  Toby is a really enjoyable character – she’s complex, intelligent, and strong without being cold, and gives a skeptic’s view of the Gardeners.  Ren though, who is to blame for the constant mentions of Jimmy (see next paragraph), is rather annoying.  She is a follower, through and through.  After her return to the compounds, she is exposed to Happicuppa, which was revealed to be a corrupt new brand of coffee in Oryx and Crake and which the Gardeners staunchly oppose:
The first time, I told him Happicuppa was the brew of evil so I couldn’t drink it and he laughed at me.  The second time I made an effort, and it tasted delicious, and soon I wasn’t thinking too much about the evilness of it. (121)
This passage was quite powerful to me as it sums up the mentality of most people – they prefer pleasure to any guiding ethics or morality.  It’s like the compostable SunChips bags: they are currently discontinued because while people liked that they were compostable, they preferred a bag that didn’t make so much noise.  We’re a lazy and selfish species; it kind of makes you identify with Crake, doesn’t it?
To be honest, I didn’t love this book.  I love most of what Margaret Atwood writes and while I enjoyed her style and originality in Year of the Flood, I was also a little disappointed in it.  A lot of it felt like an elaborate stage meant to expand upon Snowman’s story, which was already told in Oryx and Crake.  And while it was fun to have cameos by familiar characters, the cameos became a little too common, feeling a little contrived.  After a while, Jimmy seems to show up on every other page due to hard-to-credit coincidences, yet doesn’t really contribute anything new to the story. I found the story of the God’s Gardeners incredibly interesting and their lifestyle admirable.  I also found myself wondering if I could somehow get onto the roof of my apartment building to begin my own garden (I can’t).  However, I wish that the story could have just stuck with them.  The one exception to this would be the brief cameos by Glenn (which are easy to miss, as he was generally referred to as Crake in the previous novel).  Nobody seems to know much about him, including Jimmy who was friends with him for years, so the additional information given about him here serves to broaden the scope of our knowledge of him and what he eventually does.  However, his appearances were overwhelmed by those of Jimmy, who is no more interesting than the latest woman he is boffing. 

For anybody who loves Oryx and Crake, I definitely recommend that you read Year of the Flood, just don’t be disappointed if it’s not quite as excellent.  It is s a good novel and worth the time – just not as amazing as its predecessor.  It certainly won’t stop me from finishing the series, whenever that may be.