The Classics Club: Two Years Later

Two years ago today, I put together a list of seventy-five classics I wanted to read by July 15, 2017 and, thus, joined The Classics Club. Last year, I reflected back on my progress — how many books I had read so far (16 from the list + eight other classics), how I overcame my fear of Edith Wharton, and how I tackled one of the longest books on my list.

This year? I’ve read two books — Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and The Iliad by Homer — from my list and one other book I’d consider a classic. Which brings my total number of classics read since July 15, 2015 to twenty-seven classics with eighteen from my list of 75.

Do I wish I had read more from my list in the last year? Yes, of course, but I’m trying to avoid words like “only” or “failure” in this recap. I enjoyed both Hardy and Homer’s novels; I’m glad the Classics Club gave me the kick to pick them up. I’m also trying to avoid making too many goals or plans in the coming year. Maybe I’ll pick up some steam in the final year before my goal date, or maybe I’ll “cheat” and extend my date to 2018 (or 2019 or 2020). But, hopefully, there will be some great classics along the way!

All About Love by bell hooks

17607Nonfiction — print. William Morrow, 1999. 240 pgs. Library copy.

This collection of essays by bell hooks analyzes the many facets of love — self-love, romantic love, parental love, greedy love — and how the lack of love (or, too much of “bad” love) can spread from the public sphere to the private sphere. She defines love as “as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. And hooks’ central thesis is that individual lives can be better by fostering love within oneself for the individual, finding non-romantic love for their community, and upending a social structure in with patriarchy and male-domination are the established order.

Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then differences, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear — against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect — to find ourselves in the other. (pg. 93)

On that last point, hooks draws on her own personal history and the revelation during second-wave feminism of just how widespread domestic and sexual abuse were (are?) within American families. Her father’s domination of their family unit, including his insistence on elevating the voice of his son over his daughters and wife, meant that hooks would go on to engage in romantic relationships with men who were not really men and were unwilling to support her with the kind of love she desires and deserves.

The first man adopted strict gendered-expectations for their relationship when hooks pushed him to grow up; the second did the same as people began to assume their age differences meant she dominated him. And the love she experienced as a child ended up becoming her defining foundation of love as an adult so that she was unable to find the kind of affirming or uplifting love that enhances a person’s life, that recharges their soul.

She does spend some time on how marital love is different from the passionate love that Hollywood says women should aspire to, but her primary solution to this lack of love is to encourage a more community-based version of love. For people to put more stock into the friendships they form, to accept that single parent homes are often supported by friends who take on godmother roles, to renew the ties with their larger family structures.

To that point, although she considers her nuclear family to be dysfunctional, hooks credits her extended family with supporting her through her childhood and demonstrating how love should be manifested within the family. I think this credit has a tendency to cloud her judgement — at one point, she encouraged her lesbian sister to maintain ties with their hateful and homophobic family simply because their had to be some sane ones in the lot somewhere.

It’s been my experience that people don’t tend to cut off their families unless things have reached nuclear wasteland levels of toxicity, and pushing someone to stay while preaching about self-love and affirming communities is quite hypocritical. Particularly since hooks devotes an entire essay on how society has equated parents caring for their children with love. A child who is presented to the world with clean clothes and a full belly may be utterly deprived of love and affection at home; a child who goes to bed hungry could be surrounding with love every moment of their lives.

To hooks, this false equivocation perpetrates a cycle where parents who grew up without love go on to have children who grow up without love in their lives. It also contributes to what she calls a “love of greed” where a capitalist society’s obsession with material goods drives a wedge between communities and leaves people in a constant desire for more, more, more. I agreed with the premise of this chapter, but it found her constant “slut shamming” towards Monica Lewinsky to be completely off-putting.

Could the greed hooks says motivated Lewinsky to tell her story not also have been a realization that she deserved a better kind of love than Bill Clinton was offering her? Or, a conflation on Lewinsky’s part of physical, male-dominated love with the kind of love that hooks’ admonishes our society for upholding as real and fulfilling?

And there’s the evidence that I took something from hooks’ essays. That her thinking turned my thoughts inside out and made me pause and contemplate. I ended up flagging several passages in this book, including hooks’ daily mantra that she repeats to herself each morning:

I am breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life. (pg. 70)

But, like her, I think our personal experiences colors how we each view and approach love. I have not yet experienced romantic love, although I’ve had a tendency over the years to fall into fairly one-sided friendship that take me some time to walk away from. But I have experienced familial love far above and beyond the kind that marked hooks’ life. Yes, my parents care(d) for me in all the ways she’s listed, but I also know in the depths of my soul that they love me. That they would challenge their own thinking in order to accept me as I am; that I would be a lucky person if I was to follow the old adage about girls marrying men like their fathers.

So while I agree with some of her essays, there are others that I could not reconcile with my own definition of love. I certainly don’t feel that need to seek out the spiritual-based love she expounds upon in the end in her essays on religion and angels as a solution to society’s lack of love. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s wrong — after all, I agree that a growing obsession with consumerism and immediate gratification means people end up experiencing bursts of love rather than a sustaining love.

Yet there was also so much that I didn’t agree with, including the gendered assumptions she makes about men and women and how each of them approaches relationships. (She has a whole chapter on how men will use lying to control and subordinate their partners, but the “best” liars I know are women.) Which made the authoritarian tone hooks adopts throughout the book hard to tolerate at times and led to me skimming some essays rather than taking the time to stop and unpack each one.

That said, this is very likely my longest “review” to date so there certainly is a lot of food for thought crammed into these essays. And despite my negative reactions to some of her assertions, there is a large part of me that wants to put this book into many different hands in the hopes that each of one could scoop out the gems within these pages and discuss. I imagine each person I gave the book to would find different aspects as gems, though, given our varying experiences with love.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

51conh5rp1l-_sl300_Fiction — audiobook. Read by Noah Taylor. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012. 10 hours, 21 minutes. Library copy.

Stationed as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock off the coast of Western Australia, Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel live largely in isolation. Two miscarriages and one stillbirth have isolated the couple even further — both from their family on the mainland who are anxious for grandchildren and from each other.

The arrival of a battered on the shores of Janus Rock carrying a dead man and living infant is seen as a sign by the bereft Isabel, and she urges her husband to go against his training from the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service and the morals he clings to after all he’s seen in World War I. Tom buries the body; Lucy adopts the infant and names her Lucy.

Two years after her arrival, the Sherbourne family return to mainland Western Australia with plans to introduce Lucy to their families as their daughter and christian the child. There, they learn of a young woman by the name of Hannah who is still grieving over the disappearance of her husband and the baby girl they named Grace. Gossip trails Hannah wherever she goes — community members claim her husband, a German-speaker hated for his supposed role in World War I, ran off with the child for his native Austria — and the what ifs are driving her mad with grief.

Far too often, a novel will introduce a complex situation and leave the reader in a grey wasteland without an answer. Should baby Lucy be returned to her birth mother? Should Tom and Isabel be charged with kidnapping? Should war and grief be acceptable excuses for peoples’ crimes?

Thankfully, Stedman introduces this complex situation and then follows through with the fallout. It is apparent that someone will lose, but who the someone is and the reaction of the community at large to their loss moves this heart-wrenching tale far away from the unbelievable place it begins. It is a period of adjustment for Lucy, Hannah, Isabel, and Tom; it is a period of mourning for all. And Stedman handles each character’s point of view and reaction to the situation with care. With an attention that makes this a far more extraordinary debut than the writing style original suggests.

And, despite the distance both in time and space from World War I, Stedman never allows the war to stray from the reader’s mind — just as it would have been for real Australians in 1926. There are the shattered, debilitated men who are lost to their communities and the guilt of those like Tom who came back — at least, physically — in one piece. There is the anger and the resentment over lost children — brothers, sons, and husbands — in war manifesting itself in both the xenophobia directed towards Hannah and her husband and the relationship between Tom and Isabel, Tom and Lucy.

The novel does occasionally switch from past to present tense for no discernible reason, which added some complication to listening to the audiobook as read by Noah Taylor. I would often have to rewind in order to ascertain if the novel had suddenly switched back in time (it hadn’t). And there was also an issue with the sound mixing. I would jack up the volume for one part — Taylor has a tendency to mumble — and then have to scramble to turn it down when he started screaming at me in the next part. The novel was worth dealing with all the audiobook’s idiosyncrasies, but I still wish I had read the print version instead.

Currently in March

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Enjoying | A friend came to visit on Friday night into Saturday — we went out to my favorite restaurant in Chinatown, watched “Thumbalina” as she was horrified to learn I had never seen, tried out a new place for brunch, and took the subway to the southern portion of the city to check out a long, rambling path along the Neponset River. I’ve been suffering from off-and-on knee pain for most of the month so I worried the 6-mile walk would do me in. But I woke up this morning feeling great.

Reading | Of course, the lack of knee didn’t stop me from spending this morning on the couch reading bell hook’s All About Love. I’m not a religious person, but there was something so lovely and almost poignant about reading a series of essays on love on Easter Sunday. I finished the book this morning and moved onto The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler.

Listening | I’m currently in between audiobooks, and I think that might have something to do with my recent discovery of two podcasts — “The Ezra Klein Show” and “On Being”. The former is a long-form interview on politics in America with different actors — Senator Cory Booker, a lobbyist, a pundit at the Heritage Foundation — by the head blogger/columnist/editor at Vox. The later is another long-form interview hosted by Krista Tippett with doctors, philosophers, activists, poets, scientists, etc. I’ve been going back through the archives and was thrilled to discover this interview with Barbara Kingsolver from 2010.

Finishing | This is the last week of the TBR Triple Dog Dare. I read twelve books off my TBR pile, including audiobooks as all were on my iPod before the beginning of 2016. But giving myself permission to participate in #ComicsFebruary was a slippery slope, and I ended up reading eight comics from the library (plus book club selections). I am still going to prioritize reading off my own shelves in the coming months. Try to repeat that promising start from January.

Anticipating | April will be a busy but exciting month for me — vacation, my twenty-fifth birthday, apartment hunting, new projects at work and in my personal life to focus on. I think my motto for April will be a statement I highlighted this morning in bell hooks’s book, “I am breaking with old patterns and moving forward with my life”.

A Day In the Life of the Ardent Reader (2016 Edition)

A-Day-in-the-LifeFor the second year in a row, Trish of Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity is hosting “A Day in the Life”, an event where bloggers are encouraged to document a typical weekday for them. I participated last year and, honestly, didn’t think my typical weekday would change too much from 2015 to 2016 — same job, same apartment, same book clubs. Turns out, there are some subtle differences between Wednesday, March 11, 2015 and Wednesday, March 16, 2016.

5:43am: I’m one of those nutty people who wakes up before their alarm goes off. No matter how early it is or how tired I am. Because I can’t see a thing without my glasses, I ended up fumbling for my phone to check the time and then fall down the rabbit hole of email, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram.

IMG_11936:00am: Alarm goes off. I’m feeling lazy this morning so I hit snooze, roll over, pull the covers up, and try to pretend this never happened. I end up hitting the snooze button on my phone two more times.

6:30am: Alarm goes off, again, and I tell myself that I really do have to get up. I drag myself out of bed and head into the bathroom to pop in my contacts, wash my face, etc. Since I usually think about — if not pick out — my clothes the night before, it doesn’t take me very long to get dressed.

6:48am: In the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Because of my fluctuating blood sugar and protein levels, I have to eat something more substantial than cereal. Today’s breakfast is scrambled eggs, which I eat on the couch while watching “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”.

7:15am: Second alarm sounds. I use this alarm as a reminder to take my vitamins and as a 15 minute warning that I need to leave for work soon. Usually when I go to turn this alarm off, I’ll place my order at Starbucks via the app so it’ll be waiting for me at Starbucks by the time I get there.

7:28am: Out the door. I’m fortunate enough to live within walking distance of working — so close that I could leave ten minutes before 8 and still get there on time. But stopping at Starbucks adds a few minutes. I never used to be a coffee drinker, but I’ve sort of become addicted to Starbucks’ cappuccinos over the past few months.

IMG_34877:52am: Arrive at work. Typically, I’m the first one to arrive at the office for my group, and I appreciate having an uninterrupted hour or so in the morning to check emails as well clean up and organize my group’s new task management system so we’re all on the same page about the priorities for the day.

I work as a computer programmer and data analyst for a small software company. While there are a lot of exciting proof-of-concept projects coming down the pipeline and responsibilities I’ll be picking up with my recent promotion, I’m currently in between projects so I spend most of my day doing more “grunt work” than anything else. The silver lining in this is I am back to having time to listen to audiobooks. Right now, I’m making my way through The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

11:00am: Every two weeks, the group I work in gets together to have our “boring” meeting — we all go around in a circle and say what we’re working on — and our “fun” meeting — we participate in an activity to foster team bonding. As the leader of today’s meeting, I found a logic puzzle online for all of us to work through. Which sort of backfired in the team bonding department because we all ended up sitting in silence trying to solve the puzzle. Whoops.

IMG_359412:00pm: I normally try to eat lunch around 11am so I can (a) avoid lines in the break room for the microwave and (b) spend thirty to forty-five minutes of my lunch break getting some exercise. With the meeting, though, I’m relegated to waiting in line to heat up my asparagus and shrimp risotto.

I like to tell people that I’m not a bad cook, I’m just not an inspired one. Using a service like HelloFresh or BlueApron, which were gifted to me by two friends back in October when I was too sick to walk to the grocery store, has really helped me spice up my lunches and avoid visiting the fast food places near my office on a daily basis.

12:30pm: I skipped a walk around the mall near my office today because two of my coworkers want to take me out for ice cream later to celebrate my promotion. So it’s back to work and back to my audiobook.

IMG_34532:15pm: Ice cream time! My two coworkers and I hit up Ben & Jerry’s — I love their Americone Dream flavor — and take a brief walk as we eat in order to enjoy the nice weather.

3:00pm: The three of us return to work, and as soon as I sit down at my desk, I end up getting pulled into a conference call with one of our clients to discuss how we trend the former currencies of Euro Zone members to the 2015 US Dollar. This is a question the economic geography nerd in me loves to geek out over and one that seems to stump a lot of people.

4:45pm: Alarm goes off. (I’m starting to sound like a broken record here.) This is my reminder alarm to go change into my work out clothes. On Wendesdays, I leave work the slightest bit early so I can get to my 5:30pm yoga class on time.

IMG_36025:30pm: Yoga class. This particular teacher, Emily, was recommended to me by a woman in my book club, but I’m not one for Zumba so I was thrilled to find out she also teaches yoga. Her class is an interesting hybrid with an hour of yoga followed by a roughly 30 minute cooking demonstration.

Emily is dairy-free and glutten-free so she uses products — quinoa, protein powders, chai seeds — in her cooking that I’ve never, ever used in my life. Tonight, we learned how to make pancakes using oats, banana, an egg, and protein powder, which was quite a different experience for my taste buds. (I ended up smothering mine in sweetened cacao nips and honey.)

7:15pm: I usually call my parents at the same time on weekdays — exactly three minutes after five when I’ve left the office — and my mom has said they start to wonder what’s up on the days the phone doesn’t ring at this time. Today, I was in a rush to get to yoga so I end up calling them after-class as I wait for the bus. We chat about our days, how I’m going to see Colm Tóibín speak tomorrow, and other plans for the weekend.

8:00pm: I’m finally home and ready to unwind with a book and a bath. Tonight, I’m reading bell hooks’ All About Love, which is the March selection for the feminist book club Our Shared Shelf started by Emma Watson.

8:45pm: Since I already ate at my yoga-cooking class, I don’t really do much for dinner tonight — a smoothie made out of blueberry yogurt, fresh strawberries, and milk. I eat this while watching an episode of “House of Cards” and catching up on all my social media sites.

10:00pm: Normally, I will push to stay up another hour so I can watch and live-tweet my favorite show, “Chicago P.D.”, with my friends and the cast. But show is on hiatus this month so I’m off to bed. Probably for the best because I run better on more sleep and I’ll probably wake up before my alarm again tomorrow morning.