Is that gonna’ stop me from signing up for this year’s? Also heck no!
I may not have finished a single effing Classics Challenge (hosted by the lovely Karen of Books and Chocolate), but each year I reap the benefits anyway.
I read wonderful new-to-me classics. I delve into authors I’ve been meaning to read for years and haven’t gotten around to. I read novellas, plays, children’s books, novels I know the names of but not the stories.
One of the more fun things about reading the classics is that I suddenly understand certain cultural references and see them everywhere.
To wit, last year I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and noticed that one of my neighbor’s wifi networks was named NEWLAND ARCHER. Hah! I’m in on the reference. What a time.
1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899
2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; the only exceptions are books which were written by 1971 and posthumously published.
3. A classic by a woman author.
My default reading style is pretty much this categeory and I have too many ideas to even contemplate settling on something at this point…
4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer.
5. A classic by BIPOC author.
6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author–a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
Brimming with ideas here.
8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).
9. A children’s classic.
10. A humorous or satirical classic.
11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure.
12. A classic play. Plays will only count in this category.
How about you? If you’re participating in this challenge or just plan to read some classics this year, please share!
I was entering the 35 books I forgot to log into my dorky reading spreadsheet the other day and Ben simply said, “Serves you right.” 😀
So in case you thought we weren’t competitive about our reading challenges after all these years…well, we are.
The truth is that I read 85 books this year, 25 more than my Goodreads Challenge goal if you’re keeping track (clearly I wasn’t).
My belief is that it’s all thanks to audiobooks because I had a hell of a time concentrating in the quarantine world. I’m not entirely sure why. I would settle into bed with a book at night, suffer through a few pages, toss it aside, and pick up my phone.
Anyone else struggling like this?
In the meantime, I ran through audiobooks like a fiend, getting anxious when I finished one and immediately starting the next. They have been my only real and satisfying means of escape this year, a year when work got busier than ever and life got weirder than ever.
But enough about me–how ’bout those books!
2020 Wrap-up and Nerdy Book Stats
Total books read: 85 Fiction: 51 Nonfiction: 34 Female authors: 70 Male Authors: 15 Nonbinary/Trans authors: 0 – Again. Gonna’ add some to my library holds immediately. Non-white authors: 10 – Better than last year, but certainly not good enough. E-books: 9 Audiobooks: 45 – A real record for me. Re-reads: 9 – Started an official re-reading project in 2019 and kept on keeping on in 2020.
These numbers won’t add up to my total books read because some books fit into more than one category.
I stopped paying attention to the categories for each about halfway through the year, I’m afraid. But I still managed a good number of classics and historical fiction. And those were the goals, so I’m calling it a win.
Every year, the Classics Challenge encourages me to discover new-to-me authors and this year did not disappoint in that regard. I delved into the world of Edith Wharton and fell in love.
I read all of these:
My favorites were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence – in that order.
I will, in all likelihood, attempt it again this year. The worst that can happen is that I won’t finish again, and it will be totally worth it!
Ditto the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Not an excuse, but I had the hardest time finding well-written historical fiction this year. There’s a lot of crap out there. (Also an applicable blanket statement about 2020.) Stillwater and The Shadow King were excellent though.
Some 2020 Favorites
Below are some few of my favorite books read this year. All in all, I’d say it was a great success.
What about you? If you have reading wrap-ups, please link them in the comments so I can check them out! Or, just let me know what your favorite/least favorite books were. I’d love to see.
Thanks so much for stopping by and Happy (belated) New Year!
Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles: The title is a reference to their use, for the first time, of a state-of-the-art 8 track solid state (as opposed to the older valve state technology) mixing desk. This “making of an album” story is partly an exploration of how the Beatles and their producers utilized (and in some cases drove) the advances in studio recording techniques. But it inevitably becomes even more a story of the unmaking of the Beatles, and how they managed to create a masterpiece amid the chaos of their impending breakup. Stylistically the writing doesn’t dazzle, but as a work of rock and roll history it shines.
The Architecture of Happiness: This book was absolutely charming. The author begins with an argument against the idea of taking architecture seriously at all, then spends the rest of the book turning that initial premise upside down. De Botton’s idealism sometimes gets ahead of his rhetorical rigor, but he puts forward so many intriguing ideas that I’m not inclined to hold that against him. One concept that was particularly striking was that a society often finds most beautiful those qualities which it most sorely lacks. Thus a palace in the seething hive of corruption that was Medici-era Venice might be filled with references to virtue and nobility. A society beset with chaos and instability might value the tranquility of abstract and symmetrical design. And the more we lose contact with the natural world, the more we emphasize its beauty. De Botton also introduces a useful rubric for the vast majority of us not trained as architects to begin evaluating successful architecture. He emphasizes the successful combination of opposing elements, particularly order and complexity. We can look for other balances as well: history and modernity, natural and manufactured, luxury and modesty, masculine and feminine, or whatever elements might be in tension for a particular project. A student of philosophy as well as an architect, de Botton asserts the Aristotilean idea that beauty is most often found in a balance between extremes. He closes with the admonition to future builders: “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”
Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present: If you wanted to read just one book of 300 pages or less that explains the Western world today, this one would be hard to beat. Even with some apparent tangents to explore the biographies of less-central figures, Blom paints a concise and balanced portrait of how the Medieval-style social structures were transformed, partly by a renewed interest in Classical scholarship (see The Swerve, which I have read previously and was therefore tickled to see the author reference), but also by the environmental pressures of the Little Ice Age, which threw a wrench into the formerly stable model of subsistence agriculture. Blom insightfully traces a line from a society structured around an absolute faith in Divine Will of God to a modern society which places its faith in the Invisible Hand Of The Markets. In some ways it was a massive revolution, and yet in other ways the new system still relied on faith-based doctrines to keep everyone working to the ultimate benefits of the elites. And of course it is no great leap to imagine that just as the previous order was unable to survive that historic climate crisis, the current order may not survive this one. Along the way he touches on many of the biggest intellectual icons of the era : Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Locke, Descartes, Shakespeare etc. We also get useful overviews of Colonialism/Mercantilism, the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, rivalries between the major European powers, Jewish life in Europe during that period, and how the rise of trading economies was linked to an increased openness to new ideas and influences. Do not skip the Epilogue, which is where Blom makes his strongest effort to apply the lessons of the Little Ice Age to our current time of global warming.
The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business Ranges across a variety of industries, from sports stadiums to health care to air travel to illustrate how the wealthiest people opt out of the often-deteriorating systems that the “rest” of the people have to use. In an economy where the richest few percent control an ever larger share of wealth, there is plenty of incentive for businesses to cater to the ones with the money. And when the richest and most influential people don’t have to use the shitty public version of something, they tend not to support it politically, which can lead to a vicious spiral. But it’s not all gloom and doom. Schwartz does examine some businesses that make a point of being more egalitarian, and are successful. And there are also some models of letting the rich pay more for a VIP experience without worsening the experience for everyone else. For example: a music festival that has a VIP tent, but instead of putting it front and center blocking everyone’s view, they put it off to the side where it doesn’t take anything away from the experience of general admission ticketholders.
Gideon the Ninth: I’ve often lamented how overblown the promotional blurbs are for new sci-fi and fantasy books. This one delivered on everything advertised, so let’s give some credit where it’s due. “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Yup, 100% as advertised. Thanks Charles Stross. Soooo many skeletons. Though for such a dark and pulpy book, the lesbian romance was more cute than salacious. “[something covered by the library sticker] …and gleaming. A profane Daria.” Not sure what the first part said, but yeah, that’s an excellent analogy, person-whose-name-is-also-covered-by-a-sticker. “Muir’s writing is as sharp as a broken tooth, and just as unsettling.” Well, maybe not thaaaat unsettling. But I’ll allow it V.E. Schwab (if that is your real name). “Punchy, crunchy, gooey, and gore-smeared, Gideon the Ninth is a pulpy science-fantasy romp that will delight and horrify you to the bitter end.” Kameron Hurley definitely read the book and got it. “Necromancers! Dueling! Mayhem! Gideon the Ninth is disturbing and delightful in equal measure — I loved it to pieces.” My old friend Yoon Ha Lee, delivering the straight dish.
The Sun Also Rises: You know I always have to get my summer Hemingway in. But I don’t always know which book(s) to choose. This year though, the desire to read The Sun Also Rises sprang up seemingly of its own accord. I discovered that it’s a good book to re-read when you’re older and more cynical. I was much less sympathetic toward Jake and Lady Brett’s nonsense this time around. But even while scoffing at the reality TV-style drama and recriminations of the main characters, I enjoyed, as always, Hemingway’s keen enjoyment of simple things. The big drama of the book is in Paris and then at the bullfighting festival in Pamplona. But the little side trip Jake takes with his friend Bill to go fishing is one of the most charming sections of the book. Hemingway’s appreciation for a good meal, a drink with a friend, a joke with a stranger, the beauty of nature, and reading in bed are all amply demonstrated. It always unsettles me a bit that a man with such a keen enjoyment of life’s everyday pleasures would end up killing himself. Bonus note: This book has one of my favorite quotes: “How did you go bankrupt” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
A Red Death: This is jumping back to a book that I missed in the Easy Rawlins series. Reliant as I’ve been on what’s on the shelf at the library, I’ve kept most of the series in order. But this one had escaped me until now. I’m glad I doubled back for it, because it sheds light on the early stages of Easy’s relationships with some of the prominent characters in later books, most notably his business partner Mofass and his best friend’s wife Etta Mae. It occurred to me that this series would be fun to pair with Mad Men for some kind of analysis of mid-century America. They cover similar time frames, centering on the 50s and 60s (though the Rawlins books cover a slightly wider spread). Mad Men is East Coast, mostly white, and deals with the upper echelons of wealth and power. The Rawlins novels are primarily Black, West Coast, and deal primarily with poverty and the underworld. Though both are willing to cross over a bit. Mad Men detours into the seedier side of society and Easy Rawlins sometimes finds himself enmeshed in the machinations of the rich and powerful.
Up In Arms: How The Bundy Family Hijacked Federal Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement: Temple, an investigative journalist, paints a vivid portrait of the Bundy family’s defiance of the Federal government, particularly the Bureau of Land Management. The Bundys, with their wildly flawed Constitutional scholarship, religious zealotry, and disregard for environmental consequences don’t come off looking like heroes. But the federal authorities were hardly pure themselves. The agent in charge of the attempted confiscation of the Bundy herd was aggressive, abrasive, and (it later came to light) abusive and corrupt. The extent of federal land ownership in the West is more fraught than I once realized. East of the Rockies, the proportion of federally held land is quite small. But out west, particularly in Nevada it is wildly different. Eighty-five percent of NV is controlled by the federal government. So the state only controls 15% of its own territory, which sounds kind of insane. Utah, Idaho, and Oregon all control less than half their geographic territory.
The Art of War New Norton Translation: This is a new translation of the oft-cited classic. I haven’t settled on a favorite, but this one was enjoyable to read. Nylan, who has a strong publication history of Chinese scholarship and translation, employed a team that included a former military officer and a poet, along with, as she puts it “the usual sampling of academics.” I did miss the concise, evocative, and popular line from the Griffith translation: “In death ground, fight.” Nylan’s translation renders it less elegantly, if no less emphatically, “And always, always in the deadlands, fight like hell.” On the plus side, chapter 12 yields this delightfully Yoda-esque injunction: “When nought’s to gain, move not. Over things of little worth, fight not. Save in direst need, war not.” And if you’ve ever been tempted to wade into the comment section of a social media post to tell strangers how wrong they are, that passage is for you.
Sword of Kings: The Saxon Tales (I swear they used to be called The Saxon Chronicles but it’s definitely Tales now) are still going strong. This book had a little bit of an odd feel to it, with protagonist Uthred’s motivations seeming a bit contrived, and his strategic thinking taking a big step backward from the last couple books. That kind of annoyed me, because I had enjoyed seeing him develop from a young and easily manipulated hothead into a canny leader who is still physically formidable but relies a bit more on his brains than he used to. But human development isn’t strictly linear, so we’ll chalk it up as either a temporary lapse or the workings of Fate, in which he so staunchly believes.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion: I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I did The Architecture of Happiness. The author’s tendency to make sweeping generalizations with little or no support is on full display. But he makes some salient points about the psychological functions that religions have traditionally served, and how the modern secular/atheist culture does not necessarily adequately replace everything that religion provided (and continues to provide) for many believers. Overall it was still enjoyable, despite my occasional bouts of scoffing at what struck me as inaccurate assumptions. And it’s always good to read things that we don’t necessarily agree with to broaden our perspectives or sharpen our own arguments. In this case perhaps a bit of both.
Peace Talks: This book is one of those in-between books in a series. It definitely moves the plot forward, but spends a fair amount of time on setup. And the ending is really just the beginning of a larger struggle. So as a stand-alone work it does not completely satisfy. But the Dresden Files world is just such a fun place to hang out that I don’t really care.
Folding the Red into the Black: Mosley tries his hand at political theory with his vision of an UnTopia. He worked on, but ultimately abandoned a PhD in political science, so he’s fairly qualified to write on the topic. His insights into human nature, which serve him so well as a novelist, seem more pointed than his loosely-stitched political theory. But while he’s short on the specifics of implementation, he basically advocates for something along the line of a European social democracy: a robust safety net to guarantee that everyone’s essential needs are met at a basic level, along with a free market for those who wish to pursue a standard of living above that most basic tier. He advocates for a tax on robot labor, a shorter work week, and strong checks on the tendency of corporations to bend government to their own advantage. His vision is for people to be “free to be who we are, but bound to help all others along our way.”
Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands An engaging, character-focused look at the Crusades. Jones is the right kind of historian for me to read for fun: authoritative enough to take seriously (he quotes only primary sources in this book), but engaging enough in style to be an enjoyable read rather than a slog in search of knowledge.
Network Effect: I LOVE Wells’s Murderbot series. Network Effect is a full length novel, where the previous entries in the series were more novellas. The longer format does not pose any problem, it’s just more of a good thing. Network Effect functions as a swashbuckling space opera, a dystopian critique of corporate profiteering run amok on a galactic scale, part of a series-spanning meditation on the nature of personhood, and a storyteller making an argument for the importance of her craft in how we define ourselves.
Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls: The title does not undersell the harshness of this true crime odyssey set on the desolate plains of Oklahoma’s forgotten lead-mining country. And the subtitle “Murder, Meth, and The Case of Two Missing Girls,” is equally apt. Miller makes herself and her own precarious mental state a leading character in the book. I never completely warmed up to that approach, but her material was compelling enough for me to work through it. Miller does an outstanding job creating atmosphere as she describes the Oklahoma prairie and the towns that figure in her story. The dark, grim, small-town claustrophobia is one of the most haunting impressions from the book, along with the horrifying quote: “Out of respect for the families, and to avoid sensationalism, the DA’s office does not detail all that is included in the photographs. From what I learn through some of the confidential witnesses and law enforcement, the photos include the very things that the mind tries to protect you from.”
Mr. Campion’s Seance: A take on the classic British Whodunnit, anchored in the WWII years and spanning subsequent decades, it typecasts itself very knowingly and self-consciously. A fun read and features enjoyable characters. Maybe a little more style than substance, but sometimes that’s fine
Otaku: Have you ever wanted to read a feminist, post-global-warming-apocalypse, cyberpunk action adventure written by a former NFL punter? You should.
A Pale Light in the Black: I’ve been a fan of Wagers for a little while now. They (not going by “she” anymore) always deliver a lot of fast-paced space opera fun along with well-executed social commentary. Trying to cram too much obvious social messaging into a fun-loving work of fiction can often come off as awkwardly heavy-handed, but while Wagers lays it on fairly thick, they do it with such endearingly human characters that I never find myself complaining.
Blacktop Wasteland: High-octane (pun intended) fun featuring a trying-to-go-clean getaway driver. There’s a last bit of of polish that’s lacking, a little too much telling vs showing, but it looks like this may be the author’s first publication so he is certainly one to watch. Will he become the Walter Mosley of the Mid-Atlantic region? I’m inclined to guess he’ll stay a step behind, but I’ll happily read his next book if and when it arrives.
That’s all she (he) wrote!
Stay tuned for the Shannon list. It’s a doozy. Thanks for stopping by!
HIGHLY recommend the audiobook version of Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, narrated by Marin Ireland.
It’s the story of Lillian, a 28-year-old woman from rural Tennessee who moves to the home of her wealthy high school friend Madison to take care of Madison’s stepchildren.
The two met at an elite boarding school some years before, to which Lillian had a scholarship and which she thought of as her way out of the sticks. Lillian and Madison, her randomly assigned roommate, became fast friends and played basketball together.
Lillian is everything I love in a protagonist: weird, dark with a tender side, funny, selfish, fallible, and self-aware but not enough to prevent the drama of the novel.
And narrator Marin Ireland’s reading from Lillian’s perspective is *finger kiss* perfect. I loved every minute of her reading and took a couple of extra long bubble baths to listen to more.
Lillian is also poor and Madison is astonishingly wealthy. I always enjoy seeing what rich people get up to through the eyes of characters who have less money. I empathize with that. Can’t think why…
Lillian and Madison’s relationship is weirdly, I don’t know, entangled, or something. And we don’t quite know why at the beginning of the novel. The two are attached. And we very slowly learn that, actually, Lillian took the fall for Madison in high school when she got into some big trouble. In fact, Lillian was actually kicked out of her boarding school because of this incident. And she never quite got her life back on track. But she remained in touch with and attached to Madison anyway.
When Madison asks her a very, very big favor to begin the novel, Lillian surely owes her absolutely nothing, but agrees to help her anyway. And we find out that Madison wants Lillian to care for Madison’s new stepchildren who have this teensy little problem.
They burst into flames when they’re upset.
It’s wild. I thought I would hate it. I have a very low tolerance for magical realism. I am annoyed by fairy tales and I find fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings irritating. And yet. This kids-bursting-into-flames novel is so well done. So believable. That I couldn’t get enough.
It was ridiculous and I loved it.
The resulting character development and sheer fun of the story is worth suspending your disbelief. And Kevin Wilson doesn’t make you work very hard to do it anyway.
He even rewards you with a fairly happy ending. A satisfying one anyway. I won’t give it away. But read this one if you are at all tempted. And let me know how you liked it.
It was a fun, quick read. The title is of course a play on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But Sarah Knight had the luxury of being able to leave a soul-sucking job after tidying her sock drawer and so she wrote a book from that point of view.
The book is largely about setting boundaries. It doesn’t dig too deep. It uses the word “fuck” too much. I’m not offended by it–just annoyed when an author depends on a swear word as a gimmick instead of writing a more readable book with better and more descriptive words.
There are some good witticisms. And I found that Knight is as jaded about the world of work as I am, which was fun and reassuring. Here’s a good quote on the uselessness of meetings that you might enjoy:
But there are meetings you do not have to agree to attend in the first place. For example, say a colleague from another part of the company—the Chicago office, perhaps, if you work in San Diego—is coming to town.
Some executive assistant is “setting up meetings” wherein this colleague wanders around making the same small talk about the weather and delivering vague commentary on the state of the business in half-hour increments with everyone on your floor. There are eight meeting slots, says the executive assistant. Which one do you want?
Answer: None of them. You can just say “None of those times work for me” and continue on with your day. I know, you’re worried you’ll get in trouble, and your desire to stay on your boss’s good side overrides your desire not to take this meeting. But if you’re a competent employee and you know it’s a pointless use of a half hour, your boss knows that too. Decide you don’t give a fuck. Let someone else take one for the team. There are plenty of unenlightened coworkers who will march toward those slots like blindfolded prisoners to a firing squad. It doesn’t have to be you!
Knight also recommends an exercise in which you list all the things you feel like you’re supposed to care about and then decide which you no longer want to give your energy (or “fucks”) to. From large to small, you list the things which annoy you and decide to not give a fuck about them anymore.
That exercise is so useful that I realized I’d actually already done it. So, without further comment on Knight’s book, I present to you:
The Things I No Longer Give a F*ck About Circa 2017
Professional football (in fact, most professional sports except baseball. I will always have a soft spot for baseball.)
Anything Kanye is doing; seriously, stop making these assholes famous
Boards and committees (unless I care deeply about your cause, hard pass)
Emails from vendors at work
Video games that are not Mario related
Multi-level Marketing companies (MLMs a.k.a. direct sales)
Understanding how toilets work (I can pay someone good money to deal with that); ditto the furnace and air conditioner
Religion (it is a social construct)
Rap written after 1999
That dream you had and want to tell me about
Community theater (unless someone I love dearly is in it, in which case you are also going and will pretend to love it and shut up about it, just pre-game like the rest of us.)
Spoken word poetry/poetry jams
Pretending to like good wine
Pretending to like good beer
Hipster food in general–Aioli is for fish soup at a Mediterranean café. I will have regular ketchup on my burger like an American, please, because we are in Indiana.
Family drama (I am turning 40 this year. Enough already.)
People who only want to talk about themselves
People who talk over me
People who talk too much
People who explain things to me when I know more about those things than they do. Bye.
The feelings of rude people
Learning to drive stick shift
Books by politicians (this is not literature, guys; wise up)
Books by celebrities (same)
White papers (don’t write ’em; don’t read ’em)
Having a nice lawn
Other people’s vacation pictures
Anyway, I highly recommend making a list like this if you haven’t. It’s cathartic to get that stuff off your chest. And you could always follow it up with a list of things you DO give a fuck about, which I have done and will post for those that care.
I love Alys Fowler. I didn’t know a thing about her until I read her memoir Hidden Nature last year, in which she kayaks the Birmingham, England canals and details her coming out as a gay woman.
Fowler, I learned, was a presenter on the BBC’s Gardener’s World, a show I only came to last year. I haven’t seen a single episode with her in it. But I have embraced gardening in the last couple of years and am now totally in love with the show. And Monty Don. In a platonic way, of course.
I’m also on a budget. So when I learned of Fowler’s book, The Thrifty Gardener, I popped onto Amazon, where I discovered it was $80! Lol. No.
I searched AbeBooks, a much kinder source for books anyway, and got it for $24.
Anyway, in her lovely conversational style, Fowler doles out advice for the rest of us–those that don’t have tons of extra cash, or you know, any at all, to spend on the garden of their dreams.
Above: The rockery I created in our side yard. Please ignore the trash bins–we’re moving them eventually. Bricks and rocks were free from neighbors who were getting rid of them. Plants were purchased on sale or for less than $4 a piece, or again, given by neighbors. My mom bought five of them for me, bless her. She also helped with the digging! It may not look like much to a stranger, but it’s heaven to me…
Fowler spends time on topics like saving seeds and taking cuttings from your own plants for propagation; making compost and comfrey tea–sometimes featured on Gardener’s World, I noticed; and “scrap craft,” which is what most Americans might call upcycling.
I also appreciated her recommendations on plants that are easy to grow from seed, which is much cheaper than buying plants from a nursery. At her suggestion, my garden will most certainly include poppies and nasturtiums grown from seed next year as I don’t like to spend money on annuals bought from nurseries.
In addition to these tips and tricks, I just like the approach, the mindset that Fowler encourages.
This is from her introduction:
“This much I’ve learnt. Gardening is something you do, not something you buy. You don’t have to spend money to have a great garden. Slow gardening, like slow food, is taking time to savour. It’s the process, not the sudden transformation that matters. When you build a little, dig a bit, plant a little, harvest often and, more importantly, don’t try to do it all at once, nature works with you.”
In my own gardening, I need to reread these words every day. I should put it on a sign. There is so much I want to grow and do now that I have discovered the world of gardening. It gives me so much joy and I just want more and more of it.
Also, I’m a very impatient person. I like immediate gratification. But it’s utterly ridiculous to fall into gardening and expect that.
So, instead, I continually work on taking the slow road. Just like Alys.
Sometimes you get tired of fighting the good fight every day and just need to read something that bolsters you.
I imagine this is how many religious people feel about reading books by their favorite religious authors. It’s how I used to feel as a practicing Catholic when I read books with titles like Mary in a Martha’s World or those Joshua books that make Jesus seem like a real person.
But now my inspirational reading looks very different. After a long journey out of Catholicism and a meandering detour through New Age spirituality, I came to the logical conclusion that there is no god(s).
I’m not here to argue that point. I’m just telling you about it.
As an atheist, I don’t regret my religious upbringing or experiences. I met Ben in high school youth group, for heaven’s sake. 😉 That youth group gave me a place to be loved and cared for outside of my chaotic home (where I was also loved and cared for, but still…).
When Jacob was little and I was a very young mother in need of lots of support, my parish community was there for me. Our pastor knew me by name. He was kind of a jerk, but he knew me. I was asked to give retreat talks and was given responsibilities that made me feel capable and good about myself. Overall, I had a community and a refuge in my church. I’m grateful for those people and that place.
Mostly, though, I’m grateful that my experiences with religion led me straight to atheism. I couldn’t have ended up at the right conclusion for me without having played hard for the other team so to speak.
When I began to question, and then read about, the ways in which religions are established, I grew to understand that religion is a purely social construct.
Along this path, I have also learned about the religious history of the United States. I have woken up to the constant religious fervor that is the United States.
If you didn’t know, religion is EVERYWHERE here. Ben and I went on a walk around the downtown area last week and passed, like, five churches and a synagogue in five blocks.
I was at the mall with my mom yesterday and a lady talked to me about prayer in the bathroom. We walked past a kiosk and there was a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on display right next to a Jesus Saves t-shirt.
It gets…..tiring…being a nonbeliever in this country.
Especially when there is a mob of very vocal believers trying to make laws about what you can and cannot do based on their beliefs.
It’s all feeling very Handmaid’s Tale out there right now.
Theories about how myths (and therefore religions) get started
The incredible coordinated flight of starlings
A mocking retelling of the binding of Isaac (you know, the story in the Bible where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his own child as a sign of his obedience. That’s some sadistic stuff right there, man…)
I appreciated some Richard Dawkins in my life this week. I liked the reminder that it’s possible to wonder at the beauty and ferocity of nature without attributing it to a spiritual cause. And the reassurance that, yes, the Christian God portrayed in the Bible (angry, “jealous,” sadistic) is not a God I can get behind at all. Phew.
Dawkins reminded me that there are others out there like me. That despite a country filled with people who post memes about allowing prayer in school (even though it already is) and who fight for the right to dictate who you can and can’t marry, there is hope. There are other people out there who believe in a society that benefits all of us, not just some of us.
Ironically, sometimes an atheist just needs to feel less alone in the world.
Normally, I avoid books like this. I don’t like reading books by business-y business men who want to tell me how it is. In fact, I’m kind of over men telling me how it is in general.
However, I recently developed an interest in stoicism. I’ve hounded r/stoicism on reddit, begun reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and am particularly interested in how the ideas of stoicism can be applied to struggles with addictions.
If you know me personally, you know I struggle with my own demons and am no stranger to the self-help genre. Always looking for a gem.
I’d come across Holiday’s book in a few places and thought, nah, not for me. It sounded a little like How to Win Friends and Influence People for the social media age.
Welp. It read a lot like Rachel Hollis’ Girl,Wash Your Face, which a load of schlock geared toward women and MLM-ers.
The Obstacle contained whole lot of why and “you should” and not a lot of how.
Basically a cheerleader for capitalism, Holiday spends the book trying to relate basic ideas of stoicism to getting ahead in business, which amounted to: do better, work harder, work longer hours, push through, have a better attitude.
He lauds the stick-to-it-iveness of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, which I find basic and tiring. I mean, are you allowed to write a book about business that doesn’t mention those two rags-to-riches stories? Maybe there is a fine for that or something.
Holiday surrounds such examples with directives like, “Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.”
And “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.”
And “It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life—that’s persistence.”
What is the right action? What is the right perspective? HOW do you persist?
Well, Holiday remains vague on those points. But whatever it is you think you should do, you should definitely do it. Just do it. DOOO IIIT.
Now, is there merit in changing your attitude around obstacles? Absolutely. Holiday’s overall point, as far as I could tell by reading in between the lines of Tweet-able maxims, is that sometimes we tell ourselves a scary story about the challenges we face in life and that makes them seem insurmountable. We say we can’t when in fact we can.
But that seems to be Holiday’s entire point. Because he doesn’t elaborate. He read Meditations, drew a connection to his own capitalist-centric values (work harder! faster! better! focus!), and wrote a book for other capitalists about how to stay the course. Stoicism is just the intellectual lipstick on the capitalist pig.
Bit on the nose there, sorry. 😉
I also chuckled at his fangirl-ing around Marcus Aurelius.
If you’re willing to stick with me this far, here’s a passage where Holiday introduces the title concept of the book and tells us a little bit about our good friend the Roman conqueror/philosopher.
I don’t know that our man is all that familiar with the history of the Roman Empire.
It’s complicated, but Marcus Aurelius, like Roman emperors before him was a conqueror. He worked to expand his empire, which means, you guessed it, war with people who, from the looks of it, didn’t really care for being conquered.
Did you see the movie Gladiator? That war in the beginning where the Romans are battling the people of Germania? Same guy.
To say that a conqueror’s power “never went to his head” is, uh, speculative, reductive, and a little clueless-sounding maybe?
But here we are in the golden age of the internet and the director of marketing at American Apparel can paint his heroes however he wants I guess.
Is there anything I liked about this book? Yes, that central point, which is a point Marcus Aurelius makes in his Meditations. Basically and in my own words: Sometimes we tell ourselves a story about how scary something is to make it seem like we can’t do something. It gives us an out. “Nope, too scary, too anxiety-provoking, can’t do it.”
Better to realize and acknowledge when we are doing that so we can then decide whether to believe that story or to operate outside of it in order to get what we want/need. Whether that’s success at work (Holiday) or world domination (Marcus Aurelius).
But the book didn’t illuminate anything about stoicism for me. Instead, it seemed to promote the wrong and pervasive idea that stoicism is the philosophy of “keeping a stiff upper lip.”
Welp, I upped my game and managed three-ish reviews this month and none of them were books I actually read in June. A slow start, but here we are.
Happy 4th to the Americans and happy weekend to everyone else! I’m not particularly proud of my country at the moment, but I’m doing my best on my own anti-racist journey and hoping to encourage others to embark on the same.
–After the Flood: SO good. Will review it shortly.
-Two rereads: It Was Me All Along because I’m a sucker for a weight loss/eating disorder memoir; and Somewhere Towards the End because I never want to stop reading Diana Athill’s thoughts on aging and life in general.
-Can’t say enough about Nothing Good Can Come from This. Another book that made me feel seen.
The Obstacle is the Way: What a load of schlock.
What Ben read in June:
The Genealogy of Morals: It was good to come back and revisit this. I hadn’t read much Nietzsche since college days.
Legend: Another reread, this is the book that got me started on the delightful fantasy of David Gemmell. Mostly a pretty light action/adventure, it does also dabble in philosophizing about life in the shadow of death.
The Rap Yearbook: This was a fun read, and denser than you might expect from looking at it. The author has a rather frenetic, wisecracking style which complements his enthusiasm for the topic. He chooses the rap song that he deems most important for each year. Not necessarily “best” or “his favorite” but the one that mattered most in the history of the genre, and supports his choice with an essay, supplemented with charts, graphs, and illustrations.He often allows critics a little sidebar to make their case for an alternate pick. It was fun to get an inside perspective on genre trends that I had observed casually without really unpacking and dissecting the way a true aficionado like Serrano would.
Shameless Garden Update
Here is a shameless garden update because I can’t stop myself. It’s my new obsession.
My lovely mother came over last weekend and helped me dig out the rest of the rockery area. Seriously, she is amazing and I am so grateful. It would’ve taken me three days to do the work we did together in a couple of hours.
The dirt we dug up waiting under a tarp (to prevent washing over the yard in the rain) waiting to be hauled away:
It doesn’t look like much under that tarp, but…it is.
Was, rather. Filthy Hands Property Preservation came over yesterday and hauled it away for us. Took two guys around 45 mins. to shovel it into their truck.
You have to pay to get rid of dirt. Not a thing I anticipated when I started gardening. I do not understand the world sometimes.
Rocks laid out and representative of Neighborhood Squirrel Watch on back porch:
All the rocks and bricks were given to me by neighbors and this week I received enough to finish the job. More shameless updates to come.
In the meantime, here are Steven Q. Squirrel and his lady friend availing themselves of the birdseed I threw in the yard for them. Because of my habit of throwing seed off the porch to them, some of it has landed in the mulch bed and germinated. So we are growing an accidental millet crop.
Quarantine continues to make me real weird. 😉
Happy reading and, if you garden, happy gardening!
I didn’t realize when I read it what an outlier Ethan Frome is compared to the rest of Wharton’s work.
Well, I haven’t read all her work, so maybe that statement is uneducated and overblown, but imagine reading that bleak depiction of a hard-scrabble rural life and then popping over to The House of Mirth, where we follow New York City socialite Lily Bart about the drawing rooms, ballrooms, and restaurants of upper-class New York during the Gilded Age.
It’s a real jump.
Here’s the Goodreads synopsis of The House of Mirth, which will give you the gist if you haven’t read it:
First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities.
Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated, is accepted by ‘old money’ and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing, and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect. Whilst many have sought her, something – fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a ‘suitable’ match.
I found Lily Bart to be as compelling a character as she is infuriating. Her decisions, based wholly on making herself into the woman her social set expects her to be, are maddening at times.
Her problem is one we can understand from a contemporary perspective. Lily is beautiful but she is getting older. She has refused a number of potential rich husbands having no real desire to be married to them.
As a contemporary woman, I get that. But I also have better choices than Lily had in her time. Even women of poorer classes during that time needed to marry well to cement or improve their social standing–or at least an acceptable standard of living.
But Lily’s story shows us what happens when a woman is raised to believe that her beauty is her chief social currency, and maintaining it her chief purpose, and that no other striving is necessary to land her the life she has been promised. As a woman in the 21st century, I have no problem relating to the themes within this struggle.
Lily doesn’t seem to want to marry any of the men who seek her out. Instead, she relies on an aging aunt to fund her increasingly expensive lifestyle.
But, Lily’s obsession with keeping up appearances and her set’s penchant for gambling lead her into some “dirty” business with Gus Trenor, husband of her friend Judy.
Gus, a known flirt/philanderer, wants too much in return for the favor he does for Lily and, in an unfortunate turns of events, the deal between them is revealed and Lily is cast out from her former friends’ circle.
From the outside, we see her lose more and more dignity as she seeks to preserve her social standing armed with only her beauty and wit.
And then we see the choices she is left with when they fail her.
She does have one true friend in Lawrence Seldon, who tends to see her for who she really is outside of her social machinations. Their interactions allow for points of hope throughout the novel in a sort of will-they-won’t-they dance that carries through to the end.
I won’t give away the ending. It is apt and terribly sad.
I also have failed to capture all the wonderful themes in this novel. It is a beast in that regard, so many threads to pull out and examine. I have no doubt I’ll reread it before long.