Top Ten Tuesday: Books I had Trouble Getting Through


The good folks at The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme post they call Top Ten Tuesdays. They publish the themes well in advance, and even provide a way for TTT bloggers to share links with one another. This week’s theme is “Top Ten Books That Were Hard For Me To Read (because difficulty of book, subject matter, because it was cringeworthy– however you want to interpret).”

I’ve read a ton of difficult books in my day. Here are the first ten that come to mind.

1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

This was the hardest book I’d ever attempted when I tried it the first time (I was 12). I didn’t get through it on the first go, but I did two years later. I’ve read this text cover to cover more times than any other, and I still don’t feel that I’ve mastered it.

2. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

It’s the most difficult book I actually like. I’ve read it five or six times now, and “The Sicilian Expedition” is still a long slog despite its evocative title. It’s worth the effort, though. Especially if you’re a history or social science geek.

3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace gave a reading for Booksm...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

My problem with this one was the weird time ordering, the abundance of characters, and the fact that you have to wait hundreds of pages to see how the various subplots intersect. I was also suspicious from page one that the author wasn’t telling a story so much as playing a practical joke on the audience. I almost put it down for that reason, but I decided to give it a chance. When I was done, I wished I’d put it down instead of finishing it. I felt as though the author had just played a practical joke on me instead of telling me a story.

4. Dune by Frank Herbert

I first read this one when I was in my late teens, and I came away not wanting to read another Herbert book, ever. I’ve since mended my ways and acquired the taste, but that didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. The first act of Dune is so slow it’s painful, which is quite a feat when you consider that it includes a strange psychic sect, a personal betrayal, and dynastic warfare on an epic scale carried out with sci-fi weapons. As if the pacing problem weren’t enough, Herbert’s proper names are as difficult in their own way as Tolkien’s, and there’s an added layer of techno-speak thrown in. Also, Herbert sometimes comes across as a guy who’s writing to show people how smart he is, which isn’t an attractive quality in an author of popular fiction.

5. House of Leaves By Mark Z. Danielewski

This could be the most difficult text I’ve ever encountered. It began as hypertext fiction. It’s a doorstopper of a book, and it includes things like pages printed sideways and mirror writing. It’s peppered with coded messages, and the keys are hidden in the appendices. It’s a story-within-a-story-within-a story, it’s loaded with symbolism, and it questions the nature of both authorship and audience-ship. I did not feel like the author had just played a practical joke on me when I was done, though. Nor did I get the idea at any point that he was just writing to show off his high IQ.

6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

William Faulkner, 1954

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I’ve not studied Faulkner extensively, but I’ve read more than half a dozen of his novels. His style is disorienting. It’s easy to get so lost in his work you have to backtrack 20 pages to figure out what you just missed. This one took me three attempts, but like Thucydides, it’s totally worth the effort.

7. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

This is the text on this list I found easiest the first time around. I read it in one go, thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed it, and have read it a second time since. It took a long time, though — a couple of weeks at least. And it required the sort of intense concentration that makes you feel like you’ve had a workout when you’re done.

8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Assigned reading for 9th grade literature, and I hated it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would use such complex language to tell such a simple story, nor could I answer that all-important question, “Why the hell should I care?” This one almost soured me on Dickens forever. Fortunately, I was assigned A Tale of Two Cities the next year, and it inspired me to write poetry. It’s still one of my favorite novels. I’ve since decided that my difficulty with Great Expectations was mostly a product of my immaturity, but I’ve never re-read it and don’t plan to. It left a bad taste in my mind, and life is too short for that.

9. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

This one is the fourth in the Narnia series, and I’m not sure I ever actually got through it. If I did, it didn’t leave much of an impression — not even a negative one. I know I picked it up several times as an adolescent, though, and I’ve read the entire rest of the Narnia books for sure. So I suppose I can count it 30-something years later.

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I may be cheating here, but I did not actually read every word of it. I read the first chapter, then skimmed the rest. This is the only book on the list that was difficult because I find it cringe-worthy. That’s all I’m saying about it, though. I totally respect the legions of people who like the Twilight series. It’s just not to my taste. I also find it problematic,  but I see no need to go on about my problems with a text after I’ve just admitted I only skimmed it 😉

(Forgive me for breaking my self-imposed rule that all my book lists contain a graphic novel unless they’re too genre-specific for that to work. I’ve never actually read a graphic novel that I found difficult, and if I don’t like the subject matter or find them cringe-worthy, I always know it within the first three pages and just stop reading.)

Monday Music and Weekly Preview


This is quite a stellar group of musicians all on one stage.  On with the preview.

  • I don’t have this week’s Doctor Who ready to go at Part Time Monster yet, but I’m hoping to get it out sometime today so as not to interfere with tomorrow’s schedule.
  • All the photo features are running at Just Gene’O this week to make room for some written posts here. I’m hoping to have a Top Ten Tuesday tomorrow and a Thursday Thirteen later this week.  I’d also like to put together a post about frequent challenges to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’d intended to do this for Banned Book Week, but I wasn’t able to get it done.
  • The Feminist Friday discussion will be at Things Matter this week, and if you missed Hannah’s Banned Book Week Blog Party over there, you can find a ton of banned book posts in her archives.

BONUS LINK: This is for you comics fans. (I know you’re out there!) Check out CompGeekHolly’s first impression of the new Gotham series.

Have a great week!

Social Media Sunday: ‘Ello, ‘Ello

I’m trying out a new social media network called Ello. I’ve only been there a couple of days, so I’m not going to give you an ebullient review and tell you to rush right out and join. I’ve not done a lot of research, so these are my first impressions. If you’re also experimenting with Ello, you can find me at If you friend me there, I’ll certainly friend you back.

Ello has a lot of potential, but it’s too early to say whether it’s going to survive or not. It’s still in beta, so it doesn’t have a lot of features yet and it has a few bugs. The upside is that it doesn’t have a massive user base yet, so it presents an opportunity to get into a network at the very beginning and watch it grow from the inside.

If you want to give Ello a try, drop me a comment. I have a few invitations to give away, and I’d just as soon give them to WordPress bloggers as to anyone else. But do read the next four paragraphs before you make the decision. Edit: Looks like I only get 5 invites. I’ve given two of them to the first two bloggers who asked; I need to hang on to the last three until I touch base with my various blogging buddies and strategic wordpress allies. I’ll post an update if I decide to give any more away for the asking 🙂

It’s my impression that Ello’s developers are positioning it as a sort of “anti-Facebook” network. You need an invitation to join, although there’s a button on the Ello homepage that says “get invitation,” so I’m not sure you actually have to be invited by another user (Diana invited me, so I have no idea what the button on their homepage does). Ello has no ads and claims not to share user information with third parties. In fact, they have a manifesto:

Your social network is owned by advertisers. Ello

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product

All this makes Ello pretty intriguing. It’s also easy to use. It features a clean, minimalist interface and it only took me a few minutes to set up my profile. The only thing I had the least bit of trouble with was getting my cover image to display the way I wanted it to. Since I’m using one of my own photos for a cover, I had to take the original and size it exactly to keep it from being blurry, but that’s a minor thing. The main two things that I wish Ello had are notifications in the user interface (at the moment, it seems like email notifications are all they have), and a way to acknowledge a post without actually commenting — like an Ello version of Facebook or WordPress likes.

Of course, I’m not naive enough to believe policies can’t change. It’s easy to turn down ad revenue and keep user information anonymous when you’re trying to get a network off the ground and you’re only fighting for a tiny sliver of a huge market. Once you’ve got a user base of millions, the pressure to monetize the data and the webspace begins to mount, especially if your startup is funded private investors who don’t have a stake in anything but profits. And I want to be clear here — I have no idea how this network is funded, or by whom — I’m just sayin’. In the meantime, I’m willing to have a little trust because I want to see where Ello goes, I see its potential, and I’m on the lookout for the next big social media network. If it does grow and the developers deliver on their manifesto, my trust will turn into loyalty.

Honestly, I’m looking for an exit from Facebook. The more I use FB, the less I like it, but I feel as though I have to maintain at least a minimal presence there for now because it gives me a few things I find useful. This is not to say I’m looking down on other people who use and enjoy Facebook. I’m happy for everyone else to stay there and have their fun, but I use the social media a little differently than most people I know. More often than not, goofing around on the public side of Facebook is a poor use of my time. Here’s a list of things I actually find Facebook useful for.

  • Talking to people in groups. Hidden groups are especially useful.
  • Private chat. It’s just so simple and easy to get multiple people into a chat. It’s the best collaboration and coordination tool I’ve found so far.
  • Interest lists. They’re a great way to aggregate themed content. Diana and I have an interest list for blogs with fanpages that was very useful to us at one point, but we’ve not updated it for awhile and I’m not reading it as much as I was six months ago because I’m mostly spending my time elsewhere.

Now here’s a list of problems I have with Facebook.

  • FBlikeSharing on Facebook isn’t worth the 60 seconds it takes to click the “share” button and write one sentence. Well, it might be worth it if you have tens of thousands of friends, but how many people are comfortable allowing that number of people into their FB networks?
  • The algorithm that determines what appears in news feeds is punishing. To my way of thinking, there are only two ways to get a big audience for a Facebook post at this point: 1. Pay Facebook for promotion; or 2. Get about 20 people together, target a specific post, build the comment thread into the hundreds, have everyone like every comment on that thread, and then have them all share it. Facebook wasn’t always this way, but it is now.
  • The problem with the feed algorithm cuts both ways. On the one hand, almost no one sees anything I post there. On the other, unless I’m continually on Facebook liking things, I miss most of what my friends post, unless I flag nearly everyone “Close Friends,” in which case I have 100+ notifications every time I sign in, and that’s so overwhelming I might as well not be getting notifications at all.
  • It’s nice to have fan pages for my blogs, but the fan pages have done so little good for the blogs in the last nine months, we haven’t even recovered the investment of the hour it took to set them up. On the rare occasion we’ve gotten good traffic from Facebook, it’s come from our personal timelines, and it’s come at the cost of tagging massive numbers of friends, which people really don’t like.
  • Facebook prefers images, big media articles, and fluff. Every time I’ve posted original text that was the least bit serious there in the last six months, I’ve regretted it almost immediately. I’m not just talking about controversial sociopolitical chatter, either. I’m talking about just asking an honest question about this or that.

The one thing the public side of Facebook is good for at this point is keeping up with distant family and friends. I don’t need Facebook for that. I have a telephone. I’ll keep the blogs connected to the fan pages for the long term, because the setup is a sunk cost. But most weeks, I post one personal status update to let people know I’m alive. As soon as I find a suitable alternative to the groups and the chat, I’m pretty much done with Facebook.

When I started all this in November, my plan was to eventually repackage our best content and use it to post to one of the fan pages on a schedule and build a big Facebook following. I’m re-thinking that now because my experience on FB over the past six months has convinced me that I’m better off spending that time and energy elsewhere.

So, Ello. Will it provide a viable alternative? Too early to say. And just looking at my “related content” in Zemanta, it seems as though tons of “experts” are saying it’s just a flash-in-the-pan Internet fad. Maybe it is, but people always say that about new networks. Facebook certainly has nothing to worry about just yet. But I’m willing to cross my fingers, roll the dice, and see where Ello goes. I’m on board for now, and I’m glad I joined when I did.

It’s good to have a social media post on Sunday again. I’ll have a Blog Traffic and Engagement post next week or the week after and share my stats from July though September.  They ain’t pretty, and that’s not surprising, but they’re worth discussing. The last couple of months has exposed weaknesses in my long-term strategy that I’m going to have to find a way to compensate for.

Featured image courtesy of MKH Marketing.



Doctor Who Series 8, Episode 5: “Time Heist” Review

by William Hohmeister

“Time Heist” is a good episode. I do not like it. The fifth episode of series 8 Doctor Who is well-paced, has strong characters and an interesting plot, but I can’t stand it. It was co-written by Steven Moffat and Stephen Thompson. Thompson also wrote the episode I hate most in all of Doctor Who: “The Curse of the Black Spot.”

The episode is a bit disjointed because the characters each wipe their memories five minutes in. The setup is: Madame Karabraxos (Keeley Hawes), an old woman full of regret, calls the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). She met him long ago, but he has not yet met her. She asks him to save the Teller (Ross Mullan), a telepathic species with only two living members. The Doctor agrees, and assembles Team Not Dead: Psi (Jonathon Bailey), a cyborg, and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a shapeshifter. Clara (Jenna Louise-Coleman) is also in the episode, but only for morale.scrooge

Team Not Dead plans how to break into Bank Karabraxos, the most secure bank in the universe. The bank uses the Teller to detect guilt, and melt the brains of the guilty. The Teller’s mate is a hostage to young Madame Karabraxos, who lives in her bank vault like Scrooge McDuck.

The Doctor uses the Tardis to plant equipment for the heist, and records himself as the “Architect” to give the team instructions. He uses the gross/adorable memory worms to wipe their minds, including his own. This is interesting: the Doctor is unusually open and honest prior to the heist. He makes plans to keep everyone alive, tells them why he wants to rob the bank, and tells them what treasure they will want to take. After the mind-wipe the Architect manipulates everyone, including the Doctor. The Doctor tries to remain aloof, but his confusion makes him a part of the team.

psiPsi and Saibra have short backstories, but their motivation and abilities are clear. Psi interests me more, because even before the heist he had wiped his mind to protect his family and friends. This clearly affects him more deeply than he lets on; when Clara asks how he could do that, Psi replies:

I suppose I must have loved them.

Saibra can perfectly imitate any other human, but she has a dash of Rogue: her power is not under her control. She can’t help but change when she touches someone. She and Psi each steal things to help with their particular problems as payment. Saibra also establishes the theme of the episode when she asks the Doctor:

Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?shapeshifter

The theme is self-loathing. Young Karabraxos uses a clone of herself as the head of bank security at each branch. When a clone fails, she burns it alive. This self-loathing will later prompt her to call the Doctor as she’s dying, but for now she’s just a rich woman in a vault. The head of security, Ms. Delphox, serves as the villain instead. This is the main problem with the episode.

The villain of any Doctor Who episode has to meet a lot of requirements. They need to be intelligent and strong, but not overpowering. If the Doctor has no chance, his win feels like a cheat, or absurd, like “The Last of the Time Lords” (series 3). If the villain presents no challenge, the episode is boring. One of my favorite one-shot villains is Miss Foster in the series 4 episode “Partners in Crime”. She’s not physically threatening, but she’s competent, has a goal, and works toward it. Most of all, she believes in her goal.

Madame Karabraxos has no goal. She seems competent for the short time we see her, but she wants nothing. Ms. Delphox is no better. As head of bank security, and with an interest in not being burned alive, she should be vicious and practical. Instead, she relies on the Teller. Deterrence seems to be the goal, but she later claims that intruders are welcome because they help test defenses. The Teller is frightening, but it lumbers along like a slasher-movie villain, and, on rewatch, presents no actual threat.

tellerThis is one of the few episodes that I disliked more after rewatching it. The most secure bank in the universe has terrible security. We see only one camera and DNA scanner in the entire building, and the camera is focused on a victim of the Teller. Saibra passes one DNA check, reverts to her own form (for no reason), and it still takes Delphox several minutes to send guards. The guards exist only to chase the team toward the Teller, which is the only source of real tension. However, the Doctor saves the day by allowing the Teller to scan his mind, which reveals that the Doctor is here to save it and its mate. Every time Team Not Dead encountered the Teller there was no danger, as a scan would reveal the truth.

After the rescue, the Doctor drops everyone off. I hope we see more of Psi: what will he do now that he can have his memories back? He’s still a danger to his friends and family. I also like how he shuts Clara down when she begins making excuses for the Doctor after Saibra appears to die.

Why was Clara along? We find out at the end: the Doctor is jealous. After she leaves he celebrates, saying:

Robbing a bank, robbing a whole bank. Beat that for a date!

How serious was the Doctor when he said “I’m not your boyfriend?”