What Shannon Read, What We Read: Monthly Recap

What Shannon Read: Jan/Feb/March 2021

Don’t worry, I didn’t write a personal essay today. Just a good ole fashioned round-up of books I read in the first quarter of the year.

How is the first quarter gone? I’m still reeling from 2020.

Per usual, books are keeping me relatively sane. Relatively. I’m following my bliss, as they say, with no real regard for the Classics Challenge or any other self-imposed structure.

That also means I’m nowhere near reading at the pace I managed last year. All my wordy power is going into the writing and proofing I do for work. Are one’s executive functions supposed to slow after 40?

Modpodge and themed mantels are also keeping me sane.

How about you? Tell me what weird (or normal if you’re like that) stuff you’re doing to sane.

On to the books!


What Shannon read in January/February/March

Past recaps here.

I managed, um, one review: Burnout: I’m adding this to the “books I throw at everyone” pile

Other thoughts:

What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers

This author wrote a fun New York Times article on this topic and it is better than the book. She essentially has one idea that she and an editor managed to streeeeetch out over way more pages than were necessary in her book. Most of the book is filler–stories from the time she spent researching and observing exotic animal trainers. If you like animal stories, you’ll like the book. If you want the straight deets on how she applied what she learned to her marriage, read the article.

That said, this whole concept rubbed me the wrong way. A lot of the “training” she was doing with her husband surrounded “second shift” work. It seems to me she is required to do a lot of the emotional and physical labor in her marriage and that needs to be addressed head on. Because women shouldn’t have to train their husbands. End rant.

David Sedaris books

In times of trouble, I turn to David. Whenever I’m taking life too seriously, his essays remind me that life is here to be experienced and that, when viewed from a distance and some added humor, one can experience life as something to be marveled at, laughed at, and enjoyed–even when it’s not the way you want it. You know, as long as your life is essentially going well.

Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey

I also turn to Bronte in times of need. These rereads are straight comfort reading for me. I listened to both while walking and ModPodging.

You Are a Badass

This is a reread for me. I’d forgotten how heavy-handed it is in the MANIFESTING department. Yes, all caps.

You Never Forget Your First

I do not give a crap about the early presidents, but this was excellent! Thanks to my sister-in-law for lending it to me. Coe writes a smart, funny, and feminist *praise hands* bio of Washington that will keep you entertained from the first page. Just read to the “thigh men” part and you’ll be hooked.

The Making of a Marchioness

Wonderful! And racist per usual. I’d never read any Frances Hodgson Burnett other than The Secret Garden.

84, Charing Cross Road

WHY DIDN’T I READ THIS SOONER????? Utterly delightful. I listened to the audiobook.

Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life

1. Tate’s therapist is a creep who, if he’s still practicing, should have his license taken away. Tate does not know this and presents her attachment to him with zero self-awareness.
2. Definitely don’t listen to the audiobook. She narrates it and it’s terrible.
3. The writing is pedestrian at best.
4. Why did I read to the end?!?!


And that is that! What are you reading? How are you staying sane?

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Audiobooks, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Burnout: I’m adding this to the “books I throw at everyone” pile

If we’re friends, I’ve already forced this book on you. It’s Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski.

I listened to it via Audible, then bought the hard copy, and now I listen to various sections on repeat to remind myself I’m not alone in the world.

I’d say that’s a joke, but I think you know I mean it.

I began researching and reading books about burnout and midlife crises last year because, call me basic, I turned 40 and found myself in a classic scenario: burnt out from working despite my “good” job with great coworkers, utterly depressed by the prospect of working for another 25 years (or more, depending), facing an empty nest (despite how proud I am of my grown-up kiddo), and approaching a future that looks like a big question mark.

COULD I BE ANY MORE PEDESTRIAN?!

All I need is a high school reunion to lose weight for. If I were a man, I’d already own a Ferrari. Or at least a Miata.

Add quarantine, plus a change in my meds, and I eventually became someone I didn’t know. I vacillated between total depression and going down to the basement to smash things. Two sides of the same coin, really.

All these feelings were uncomfortable and my response was to do what I always do: freak the fuck out for a while and then turn to books for answers.

What i read

I wasn’t attracted to any of the midlife classics, like Passages by Gail Sheehy. And I certainly didn’t want to read anything like The Middle Matters: Why That (Extra)Ordinary Life Looks Really Good on You by Jo Baker. I mean, does that title reek of uber-Christian-direct-sales mogul or what?

I liked this list on Five Books and ended up reading Kieran Setiya’s book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.

But if you identify as a woman in this society, you know that thanks to gender expectations and a raging patriarchy, women tend to face a different kind of midlife crisis than men.

This kind of crisis is often alluded to in novels right before the woman kills herself because, say, she pinned her hopes on an affair and of course that didn’t resolve any of her real issues, so she throws herself in front of a train.

Right now, I need books that recognize that my need to smash things is not just due to the midlife issues listed above. It’s also the product of fatigue from a life lived under the expectations of caregiving, including tending to the feelings of others above my own and being charged with wrangling an overload of details.

A bitch be tired.

When I found Burnout, I listened straight through on Audible, going for long walks so I could spend more and more time with it. If it were a TV show, I’d have binged it.

The audiobook is read by the authors, two sisters who happen to be great readers. They trade off reading and I felt like a good friend was talking to me throughout.

Emily is a psychologist, sex/gender educator, and professor who has written another book, Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life. Amelia is a professor and choral director. Here’s a good bio for both.

the body’s stress response

Burnout starts with an explanation of the stress response–a neurological and physiological reaction in the body–the basics on how it evolved, and why, in post-industrial life, we don’t have an outlet for it so we can “complete the cycle” of this stress response.

Here’s the explanation of the stress response as it developed in early humans.

I’m sorry I didn’t type this out. It was just too much for me to reinterpret.

If you don’t have the patience or interest in or ability to read images of a book, I get it. You can also get a copy of the book (if we’re friends IRL, I’ll give you a copy–just let me know!); listen to the audiobook via your library; or listen to minutes 5:00-9:00 of the first episode of the authors’ podcast, The Feminist Survival Project.

I finally understand why I sometimes cry when I exercise. I’m filled with the effects of a stress response on a regular basis and when my body experiences the release of exercise, akin to running from the lion and getting away (or killing it), my body says, “Aaahhh, finally, the lion is dead. We’re safe.”

As I understand it, the crying is my body exhaling and returning all systems to their normal baseline.

Why this evolutionary function doesn’t work for modern life

Well, when someone is an asshole to me at work, my body unleashes a similar stress response. It doesn’t know the difference between running for my life and someone repeatedly talking over me in a meeting. It simply “knows” it is experiencing stress and therefore initiates the pre-programmed stress response.

But because I can’t just punch the asshole in the face for obvious social reasons, there’s no release. The response is initiated, but never completed. I remain tense, alert, with blood pressure elevated, etc.

I can go home and dance it out, and the Burnout writers recommend this, but divorcing the body from an immediate release takes its toll on the body. Oh, and also, five more things have stressed me out by the time I get home, so now I’ve got a backlog.

What to do about stress

Following chapters describe actions we can take to help our bodies “complete the cycle.” Exercise, as we have all pretty much guessed, is one key.

They also go into the stressors of modern life, apply the stress response and its completion to these stressors, and–this is what I had hoped for–discuss particular stressors faced by women in our illustrious patriarchy.

I could go on, but i won’t

This is a super long post and you’re probably already tired of reading–I know I’m tired of typing. So, I’ll let you get your paws on the book and fill in the blanks.

Please read or listen to it–this info. is also relevant for men. Everyone needs a better understanding of the body’s reaction to stress because everybody has stress, whether it’s induced by gender expectations or not.

And if you’re feeling the midlife crunge like I am, know that you’re not alone.

I now take off my glasses to read up close, but it’s cool. It’s also “the new hotness,” according to Emily and Amelia. I’ll let you enjoy that section on your own.


I love us at 40.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Reasons to Stay Alive

I find books about depression uplifting. Generally speaking, that is, they give me hope.

I myself am a highly functional depressive. I take medication and employ a regimen of tactics, such as regular exercise, therapy, and eating green things I don’t like, to keep myself functional.

Chief among these tactics is reading books by other depressives and by “experts,” both of which tend to buoy me in one way or another.

Matt Haig’s popular memoir/self-help/overview of depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, certainly fit the bill. I listened to the audiobook version read by the author and enjoyed it so much that I bought a hard copy so I could highlight favorite passages.

Haig begins with the story of his breakdown. As an adult in his 20s, Haig was living with his girlfriend and depression hit him like a ton of bricks. He became suicidal and his despair was accompanied by panic attacks and a raging case of agoraphobia.

The content of the book is mostly autobiographical, but Haig peppers his experiences with research about depression and anxiety, as well as helpful tips, and–I loved this–literary references.

He’s interested in the lives and coping mechanisms of famous depressives–especially those who chose to live with depression (until dying naturally, that is). The blurb for the book says it is about how to make the most of the time you have and that, I think, is the truest way to encapsulate the content. The chapters are short, sometimes consisting of a single quote or a list.

I loved the book because I personally identified with something in almost every chapter: the exhaustion that accompanies depression, the social anxiety, the anhedonia, the fear of one’s own uncontrollable mind. I know many other depressive people have felt the same way in reading this book.

Sometimes it helps to read a book like this just to hear someone else say the things you’ve only said to yourself.

But also, Haig shares some hope. He shares exactly what works for him. Mainly reading and writing. But also exercise, especially running, healthy eating, facing his fears, the love of his wife and family, regular time outside, and many other tactics in his own regimen.

We functional depressives all have our regimens.

Here are some items from mine.

p.s. Feature image is the dunes at Lake Michigan.

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What Shannon Read, What We Read: Monthly Recap

Wow, that was a lot of books: Shannon’s 2020 recap

Niche made by yours truly

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.

Also plants. Plants are an excellent escape and gardening actually makes you happier.
I completed my Master Gardener program in December and passed the test. Whoop!

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.


Most-read Genres

These numbers won’t add up to my total books read because some books fit into more than one category.

Memoir/Autobiograpy: 19
Classics: 15
Mystery/Thriller: 12
Historical Fiction: 7
Social Issues: 7

I do love a good memoir…


Other Genres I Read:

My favorite book in the magical realism category was Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. I loved the book and the audiobook narration.

Self-help: 4
Fantasy/Magical Realism: 4
Spirituality: 2
Philosophy: 2
Psychology: 1
Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Dystopian: 1
Myth/Fairy Tale/Folk/Legend: 1
Travel: 1

I tolerated a weird amount of Fantasy/Magical Realism this year. Four is a lot for me.



Reading Challenges

I had two reading challenges going this year: the Classics Challenge and the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

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.

Another of this year’s surprises. Gardening led me down a rabbit hole into the life of Vita Sackville-West and then Virginia Woolf. Sadly, I’ve tried around four Woolf novels and can’t get into a single one. HALP!

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!

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Audiobooks, Fiction, What Shannon Read

What if your kids spontaneously burst into flames?

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.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck

I had a rough couple of days at work last week. Mostly because I let a certain coworker get in my head too much.

She’s a know-it-all. A bean-counter. Someone who really likes being in control of everything and everyone and asserts her opinion as though it’s fact.

That bothers me. Especially when she tries to do my job when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself.

Utterly irritating.

After a conversation with a sympathetic coworker, my supportive supervisor, and then another with Ben, it became clear that this woman is gaining too much ground in my mental landscape.

I decided to pick up a book that might encourage me to care less about the petty peons that tend to run the world of office work in which I am mired from day to day.

The shirt that most expressed my feelings as of yesterday

So I indulged myself by reading Sarah Knight’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do.

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!

Lol. Preach.

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.)
  • News-hounding
  • The Kardashians
  • Anything Kanye is doing; seriously, stop making these assholes famous
  • Boards and committees (unless I care deeply about your cause, hard pass)
  • Racists
  • 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
  • Calculus
  • Religion (it is a social construct)
  • Mommy bloggers
  • 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
  • Sky diving
  • 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.

Love to all and happy reading!

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

The Thrifty Gardener

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.

Hydrangeas in my own garden
And a sweet coreopsis bloom making his presence known.
Baby fern tendril in the bottom middle
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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Outgrowing God

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.

All this is to say that I appreciated listening to Richard Dawkins read the audiobook version of his Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide.

Highlights were:

  • 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.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

A business-y business man reads Marcus Aurelius and applies it to business and maybe life a little bit?

Hmm. May have just summed up my entire review for you in my title. 😉

My tone probably tells you what I thought of The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday.

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.

bust of Marcus Aurelius – that beard tho

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.

But then I read Seth Blais’ post on Daily Stoic How Stoicism Saved My Life: My Story of Battling Addiction. It was interesting and I hopped over to his blog where he talks quite a lot about stoicism and addiction. And he recommends The Obstacle is the Way enthusiastically.

So I thought maybe I should give it a chance.

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.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000)

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.”

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2020 Classics Challenge, Fiction, What Shannon Read

2020 Classics Challenge: The Spring and Summer of Edith Wharton

What happens when a girl is raised to be nothing more in life than ornamental? When the outer and inner life of a woman must center on a man? When the substance of a human being is trained toward one goal and one goal only: to marry well and serve her husband and children until death?

These, to me, seem the essential questions asked by Edith Wharton throughout her entire extensive body of work.

And you can bet they are answered in the most disatrous of ways.

This spring and summer I have so far read:

Ethan Frome (read in January, actually)

The House of Mirth

The Age of Innocence

The Custom of the Country

The Buccaneers

The Reef

…and there’s nary a happy ending among them.

Because what happens when a woman is raised to believe her existence is purely ornamental–that is, the point of her being alive is to appear prettily on the arm of a man–is that she becomes a wholly social creature, existing only for others with a vacuousness of heart and mind in place of an actual personality, her needs and desires replaced (or suppressed) by her own constant social striving.

And that’s when she survives at all.

As you may know, Wharton famously writes of New York City socialites during the Gilded Age. She and her family were players in this scene and she writes from an insider perspective, even including characters which may remind you of real life socialites you’ve heard of: Nan St. George, protagonist in The Buccaneers, was modeled on Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the British Duke of Marlborough, representing a trend–rich American marries cash-poor English gentry–made familiar to contemporary audiences by by Downton Abbey.  

To me, Wharton’s genius is demonstrated in her depiction of social climbers.

In each of her major novels the world of upper-class New York is laid bare, its players representing each “type” in that world. For example, the Custom of the Country features the Spraggs, midwesterners who made it big in their hometown but struggle in New York–they represent the “new money” crowd.

I won’t go into detail on each book here because I’m separating them out so that Karen of Books and Chocolate, host of the classics challenge, has an easier time tallying my books.

But I wanted to write an overall sort of intro. first.

Spending so much time in Wharton’s New York (and Western Europe) has been so pleasurable and interesting. I see myself rereading these novels for the rest of my life, partly because the characters and writing are so engaging and partly because, well, I just love to see what rich people get up to.

p.s. Do you know of a good Edith Wharton biography? I hear the Hermione Lee bio is the place to start, but I’m open to suggestions.

p.p.s. Has anyone figured out how to insert special characters into their text? I’d really like to find the em dashes in this block editor! Clue me in if you know. 🙂

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