… the musings of a thirty-something, married, Southern teen librarian turned Stay-At-Home-Mom with a 14-year-old's sense of humor, an awkward spirit, and a stubborn, mouthy, redheaded country boy to accompany her through life.
I’ve been dreaming of writing this post for several years now. Having started this blog on my 25th birthday, I wondered if I’d ever make it here, still sharing my story with Future Belle and her readers. I imagined how my life would unfold over ten years. Would I ever get the job, meet the boy, buy the house, have the babies? I’m sure the overall picture is quite different in several ways, but I am undeniably happy.
You see, today I am 35 years old, a big number in the world of infertility, and I am a mother of two, soon to be three. While I never fully joined the online infertility community, I do occasionally dip my toe in and read stories from women still struggling and others who’ve survived. From the happily married and trying for years, to those still searching for love and unsure of whether they’re ready to take on single parenthood, it’s no secret that women hoping to conceive often dread and fear their 35th birthday. While we all rationally know that every body differs, we still hear echoes of generalizing doctors, aunts, and old wives’ tales warning us that if we’re not calling ourselves mothers by 35, there’s a strong chance we never will. We turn 31 and tell ourselves we have plenty of time. At 32, we get a little more anxious. At 33, we feel rushed. At 34, we start to panic. It’s positively triggering for women struggling with infertility to even think about 35.
There are so many choices in life, so many doors closed after one is opened, by the time we reach our mid-thirties. Over the years, I’ve coped with these missed opportunities through my own (probably scientifically inaccurate) interpretation of the Many-Worlds Theory. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there is a Belle who works as a veterinarian specializing in large cats… in another, a successful travel blogger… in yet another, a respected theologist or historian. For years, I’d often slip into one of these imagined realities for a time, escaping the monotony of real life for a bit of adventure. Yet, I find myself doing so less and less often, these days. I’m not reporting a fascinating life to Instagram. My father does not live vicariously through me. I’m not a renowned academic, publishing scholarly articles. I’m not even a librarian anymore, something I’d never have imagined on the day I started this blog, ten years ago. Nope. I took the road more travel and I wouldn’t slip into one of these more interesting worlds for anything.
I’m a wife and a stay-at-home mom. My days are filled with sing-alongs, story times, and Target runs. I no longer lead meetings, attend trainings, or make schedules. The only emails I send are links for my Gramma, when she wants to buy something for my girls or the new baby. In ten years, on my 20th Blogiversary, I’ll likely be that respected professional, once again. I’ll put my master’s degree to further use and earn new anecdotal stories from my dad. Right now, though, my most wonderfully average dreams are being fulfilled. There have been several times in my life, when I’ve feared I would never have this, when this was the universe I visited. I’m happily married to my best friend, living in a home on one unremarkable acre, enjoying the most amazing days of my life to date, raising precious babies. One day, I’ll be interesting again, but here, on my no longer triggering 35th birthday, I am trulyhappy.
My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, at least half of which I could reference in casual conversation without making people uncomfortable… so, not rereads of poorly written romance novels… sorry Kristen Ashley. Since I’ve never actually read most of the classics I was assigned in high school and, as a teen librarian, my main customers were still being forced to do so, I figured I’d make all 26 classics. I finished them just after my girls were born, with a six month delay due to the headaches caused by infertility medications… and I quite enjoyed myself. In fact, I’ve continued reading classics, though not in such abundance. Those included, I still only violently hated one and generally disliked a second one, as you can see in my review of books 1-7 and 8-13. I’ll also link books 14-19 as I successfully completed not only my goal to read 26 classics, but to review them. After two and a half years, I present my final installment in this series, books 20-26.
20. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury ⭐⭐
I read Something Wicked This Way Comes right around Halloween, as it features a carnival that’s come to the hometown of two young boys, Will and Jim, on October 23rd. Excited by the arrival of such an attraction, the boys quickly realize this is not just any carnival; but one peopled by sinister beings, who operate a mystical carousel, which possesses the ability to age people forward and backward.
Having discovered the truth about the carnival, Will, Jim, and Will’s father, Mr. Halloway, embark on the adventure of their lives, attempting to save themselves and eventually the townspeople from Mr. Dark, or The Illustrated Man. Mr. Dark, the leader of the carnival, is a powerful wizard who comes around every generation to prey on the community with the help of his minions. In a somewhat hokey conclusion, the trio manages to defeat the festival fiends through cheer and laughter and all is well.
Something Wicked This Way Comes was likely the perfect coming of age story for a young teenage boy in the early 1960s. A woman in her thirties in 2022, however, I had some trouble relating to the innocently rambunctious and brave spirits of Will and Jim. That’s not necessarily a fault on the part of Bradbury. It is wonderful to read an empathetic protagonist, regardless of gender, such as Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, to remind us that, on some level, we’re all experiencing the same thing. However, the unique realities of growing up male versus female, which Bradbury attempts to portray, are equally valuable perspectives for young readers. The trouble with Something Wicked This Way Comes is in its failure to live up to my standards for a classic novel.
Upon Googling what makes a classic a classic over the years, I’ve found all sorts of pompous, trite, and self-righteous definitions, none of which ever resonated with me. Only after having read nearly 30 of them over the course of a year and a half did I finally decide on one of my own. While there’s something to be said for quality of writing, at it’s most basic level, a classic is a story whose themes transcend time and societal norms. While few can relate to the lifestyle of the Regency period depicted in Pride and Prejudice, we can all all empathize with the feeling of having misjudged someone, to our detriment or theirs. As much as I disliked The Lord of the Flies, I could acknowledge the validity of some of its references to human nature. Something Wicked This Way Comes, however, serves as more of a snapshot in time. I’m not sure how apparent it would be, had I not spent years working directly with its target audience, but it is one that I feel this story fails to accurately represent.
Will and Jim depict a level of youthful innocence that was quite common in the media of the time, but which I’m not sure ever really existed. While this might be a fun story for a child of eight or nine, it’s quite the sanguine portrait of an age most people remember as being quite difficult. Even Mr. Halloway’s longing for his youth fails to consider its trials. While his character does have twenty years on me, at fifty-four, Charles Holloway spends the entirety of this story looking at childhood through rose-colored glasses, fantasizing about taking a few trips around the magical carousel in reverse. In the end, it’s not an understanding or remembrance of the trials of adolescence that even deter him, but an acceptance of the fact that his peers would resent his sudden vitality. As a woman nearing 35, I must say, were I given the ability to be physically 24, while remaining financially, professionally, and emotionally 34, my peers could go kick rocks.
Something Wicked This Way Comes wasn’t a bad read. It was a delightfully spooky children’s adventure, perfect for the Halloween season. I’d share it with my son, when he’s eight to ten, though likely not much later. Even having worked with preteens/young teens and nearing something of a milestone birthday, I found its themes and characters particularly unrelatable. I award two stars, because I can’t say it truly warrants the title of “classic.”
21. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte ⭐⭐⭐⭐
When I was 22, I found myself in an elevator with a couple of classmates discussing which Bronte sister they preferred. The moment I heard the airy words “I’m more of an Emily than a Charlotte,” I vowed to never read a work by either of the Brontes, for fear it would make me as insufferable as these two, who’d repeatedly presented themselves as pretentious snobs in class. It was a petty declaration, sure, but it was also one I stood by for more than ten years and that took dedication. I was, therefore, admittedly hesitant to read Jane Eyre, even though I’d truly enjoyed Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Now more than ever, I find this to be the greatest deterrent for most readers, when it comes to classic literature. People are terrible at selling their favorites, almost incapable of doing so without condescension and self-importance. Instead of discussing the titles, they emphasize what it means to have read them. Instead of focusing on the storylines and themes, they get stuck on imagery and perceived hidden meaning. Essentially, they ruin the fun. While I wouldn’t exactly call JaneEyre “fun,” I can honestly say that its title character was one of my favorites in classic literature.
Jane Eyre tells the tale of orphaned Jane, who lives with her cruel and abusive aunt and cousins, until she’s sent away to an arguably harsher boarding school. When her difficult tenure as a student ends, Jane spends the next two years as a teacher, ultimately finding a position as a governess, under the employee of Mr. Edward Rochester at Thornfield Hall. Here, she cares for Adèle, who is eventually revealed as the abandoned daughter of a former French mistress, though Edward does not believe himself to be her father. I won’t ruin the convoluted tale as Jane attempts to stay true to herself while falling for Mr. Rochester, but it was complex and original, particularly for the time. In fact, Jane Eyre serves as the origin point for the cliché “person hiding in the attic/walls” trope we now see so often in thrillers and horror. Who knew?
… probably pretentious English majors, to be fair.
At nearly 600 pages or 19 hours, Jane Eyre is tedious at times. Yet, out of 26 classic novels, I felt only a few female protagonists were developed enough to earn the title of “heroine.” Written at a time when women were primarily Madonnas or whores ::cough:: Anna Karenina::cough::, Jane was a refreshingly complex lead, as she struggled to find a balance between her own strong-willed personality and what was considered appropriate and respectful for the time. Jane struck me as the possible inspiration for Alcott’s Little Women, attempting to stand up for herself, speak the truth, and also tow the line of propriety. She was independent, intelligent, hardworking, and didn’t expect handouts or a fairytale when women in literature were hopeless romantics, at best. Jane loved Edward for his character, not his wealth, and proved it in more ways than one. For a year and a half, I read stories of damsels, femme fatales, harlots, and just plain old background music for the conversations of Very Important Men. Jane of JaneEyre ranks with Wilhelmina Harker of Dracula and Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. They’re the real MVP’s.
22. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens ⭐⭐⭐⭐
The first year Jake and I were together, I was shocked to discover that his favorite movie of all time was A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. This was an oil man who wore a cowboy hat without irony or falsehood. His duplex consisted of a broken couch, a plywood “coffee table” he and his buddies had cobbled together during his college years, a glass end table, a recliner, and a bed. A deer head, a mirror with an etching of some deer, and a framed photo of a deer comprised his “decor.” That’s it, y’all. He had no table or chairs, just an ancient microwave and coffee pot, in which he used paper towels as filters. Hmm… perhaps there was some merit to his affection for Ebenezer Scrooge.
… and his favorite movie of all time starred Kermit the frog.
It feels superfluous to recount Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but I’ll proceed. Ebenezer Scrooge stars as a bad-tempered miser who hates Christmas, on a bitter cold London Christmas Eve. Scrooge goes to bed content in his tight-fisted ways, only to wake to the first of three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows him where he’s gone wrong. Next comes the Ghost of Christmas Present, sharing what Scrooge is missing in life as a curmudgeon and the troubles he could ease. Finally, he’s visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who reveals Scrooge’s own funeral with not a single mourner. On Christmas morning, Ebenezer Scrooge awakes, determined to change his ways and immediately sets about doing so.
A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, yet feels as though it’s been told, in some fashion or another, since the beginning of time. It is, perhaps, one of the most relatable classics ever written, since there’s not a soul on earth without regrets, a desire to change in the present, or hope for a better future. While different forms of art have taken liberties with Dickens’s original story, no rendition quite holds up to the original. Considering there have been nearly 200 years to attempt such a feat, that’s quite impressive. In fact, this makes me want to read more Dickens, despite the general modern distaste of his writing from Americans who were forced to read him in high school. Short and simple, a marvelous Christmastime read, I give A Christmas Carol four stars.
23. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood ⭐⭐⭐
Since there seems to be no official consensus on what makes a classic a classic, I chose to include one modern classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Having read this book in 2020, before the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, it seemed controversial, but not overly so. Still, I was hesitant to choose a politically divisive title, when as a general rule, I tend to avoid politics on this blog.
The Handmaid’s Tale is told entirely through the perspective of a handmaid denied her own name and known only as Offred (Of Fred) in the dystopia of Gilead, the totalitarian society that was once The United States. Amidst a rampant fertility crisis, handmaids have been taken by the wealthy elite and forced to bear their children, through a disturbing monthly “ceremony” of rape. Through Offred’s eyes, we see her life before Gilead, when she had a husband and daughter, neither of whom she knows the whereabouts. Offred longs to escape, as she thinks her friend Moira has done, but doesn’t dare, instead forming an emotional bond with her Commander out of desperation and lack of choice. Offred soon realizes that Moira didn’t exactly flee to the life she’d hoped and her options are even more limited. Forced to conceive, she begins an affair with actual feeling and is not sure if this will lead her to escape or ruin.
Despite current tensions claiming otherwise, The Handmaid’s Tale, simply put, is dystopian fiction. As with Brave New World, 1984, and Alas, Babylon, it was built on modern themes and trepidations of where the world is headed, but unless read with a hyperbolic fear of the current state of politics, The Handmaid’s Tale is just as far-fetched as its predecessors. Of course, there are plenty of people on the extremes of the political wheel who feel all of these titles are coming to fruition in some way or another, comparing Offred’s story with both abortion rights and surrogacy. Not being one of them, I found it disturbingly enjoyable, but your mileage my vary.
One of the primary criticisms I’ve read and heard of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it’s dry. I find this to be a valid assessment of most classics, when compared with the literary hits of present day, because the competition for the attention of the target audience has never been so fierce. Published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s most famous title seems to start in the middle, requiring several chapters to fully grasp what’s happening. Whereas I might have found that tedious at one time, this project has broadened my outlook, because I rather enjoyed the challenge of trying to put the pieces together, almost as much as the bleak picture they created.
As a character-driven reader, I appreciate tales of complex individuals, who are neither wholly good nor bad. This element does feature in this story, though it could have been more prominent. The Commander is, of course, a rapist by today’s measure, yet shows compassion and even affection for Offred. His wife, Serena, isthe devil, but her actions are driven by a desperate yearning for a child, any child. Moira finds a way out of her circumstances, but her ending is hardly desirable. Since we’re never privy to anyone’s thoughts but Offred’s, we never fully understand the motivations of these individuals or how they feel about the world in which they live. Offred herself so longs for the past, while attempting to bear her torturous present, that Atwood never really expands on her immediate feelings. As a writing choice, the mystery makes sense, but as a reader, it did leave me wanting.
While I’m aware this is a series, reading it while struggling with infertility, I wasn’t in the mood to continue Offred’s story at the time. Pregnant, I don’t wish to continue it now. One day, however, I’d like to revisit and see if The Handmaid’s Tale still only warrants three stars.
24. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee ⭐⭐⭐⭐
To Kill a Mockingbird was actually one of my earlier picks, which I seem to have forgotten to review. It was a title chosen at the most ambitious point in my project, because I was truly dreading it. I’m not even sure if To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned to me in school, if I was forced to watch the movie while substitute teaching, or both. All I remembered prior to my 2020 read was that it was mind-numbingly dull and I loathed Scout, because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: even as a stay-at-home mom who loves her day to day life, I don’t like children... unless required to by some kind of evolutionary or spiritual programming. My introduction to Scout Finch, via the 1962 film, came long before either of these exceptions and I was not looking forward to a second impression.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the years 1933-1935, as a first-person account from six-year-old Jean Louise Finch, known as Scout. The story is something of a coming of age novel, as Scout grows from a mouthy tomboy to a still begrudging young lady, unwilling to adhere to the strict standards of femininity shared by the older female characters demanding she tow the line. While it also explores themes of masculinity, through Scout’s middle-aged father Atticus, older brother Jem, and neighbor friend Dill, To Kill a Mockingbirdis primarily known for it’s discussions and plot revolving around race. Told alongside the shenanigans of Scout, Jem, and Dill trying to befriend their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, is the story everyone recalls. Atticus, a lawyer, chooses to defend an obviously innocent black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of rape, despite the objections of the town and even Atticus’s own family.
Out of all the classics I read, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the book that surprised me the most. I honestly loved it. While I still have little faith that I could sit through the movie without yelling at young Scout, reading a story from the perspective of a little girl is far more relatable than watching her on screen. In first-person narrative, Scout’s antics went from obnoxious to nostalgic. I could remember thinking the way Scout did. I wasn’t putting up with a stubborn and disobedient child, but recalling what it was like to be one. Similarly, on page, Atticus wasn’t dull and preachy, but stoic and wise. He might not have been the father who played ball in the yard, but he taught his children valuable lessons about living with honor, while still standing against the injustices of a world that doesn’t.
While the court room scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird were indeed a little dry, they held up better in the book than on a black and white screen. The movie is not poorly done. This book just doesn’t translate well to film. While the written work stars dynamic, flawed characters, a compelling narrative relatable to both men and women, and a realistically infuriating ending, without Harper’s narration, all of that falls flat on screen. As a remarkable depiction of youth, societal gender roles, the good and bad of small town living, and racial injustice that will keep you up at night, I give To Kill a Mockingbird four quite unexpected stars.
25. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Tom Hardy ⭐⭐⭐
I am a self-aware person with no ability to lie. In fact, I tend to overshare to my detriment and readily admit that while the Twilight movie taught me the correct pronunciation of “irrevocably,” its adult counterpart, Fifty Shades of Grey, taught me of the existence of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In May of 2021, well past my self-imposed deadline of one year, just weeks out from having my twins, I was beginning to run out of classics. So many of the suggestions were unheard of or notorious for their length. As much as I enjoyed this project, I really wasn’t up for Les Miserables or War and Peace. So, having watched Fifty Shades of Grey numerous times for the cheesy romance (in spite of poor Jamie Dornan clearly reciting the rosary in his head during all of those painfully awkward sex scenes), I decided on Anastasia Steele’s favorite. While I didn’t enjoy the Fifty Shades book series, I was curious about the proposed allegorical reference to Thomas Hardy’s most famous novel, particularly the following quote:
“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks.”
I supposed this was as good a choice as any. Yes. That is the kind of scholarly process that went into my selections.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles stars Tess Durbeyfield, an innocent and utterly spineless country girl with absolutely wretched parents. After covering for her drunken layabout father one night, Tess feels responsible for the unfortunate death of the family’s only horse and agrees to meet with a potential wealthy ancestor, Mrs. d’Urberville to “claim kin.” Not realizing that the late d’Urberville only claimed the name to cover his own roots, Tess is taken in by Mrs. d’Urberville and her son Alec, who one night rapes her.That is the meaning of the above quote, which Christian sends to Ana with a first edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, folks: a warning that she might get raped.
The following summer, Tess has her rapist’s baby, who dies soon after.
For fucking realz, y’all.
A few years later, Tess has fallen in love with a young minister, Angel Clare, while working as a milkmaid where no one knows her past. Ever the Mary Sue, she feels she cannot marry without revealing the truth, yet Angel tells her they can confide in one another after their vows… which he does, admitting that he was once the willing participant in an affair with an older woman. Tess feels that Angel will surely understand and tells him of her own tragedy, only to be discarded for her disgusting part in her own rape. After years of living apart from her husband, a repentant Alec finally convinces Tess that her true love will never return. The two marry, as Tess’s only option to save her miserable family, only for Angel to show up to reclaim his bride. For the very first time in the 600 page novel, Tess stands up for herself and stabs Alec to death in a moment of glorious off-page revenge. After five days of bliss with Angel, she’s arrested and eventually executed, having secured his promise that he’ll marry her younger sister and care for her undeserving family.
There really is no way to summarize this book without blatant spoilers, if the intent is to discuss it. I’m sure it appears as though I hated Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I quite enjoyed it. As much as I love romance novels, historical has never been my jam, simply because the suspension of disbelief is just too great. Not only am I supposed to believe that the handsome, vaguely wealthy hero is into the relatably plain heroine, I’m also meant to accept that he’s not a hairy, toothless, brute who only bathes a few times a month. It’s easy enough for authors to skip over basic grooming, dental care, and hygiene, of course. While I’m no historian, the Bridgertons are just a wee bit too understanding and respectful of the women of their day for believability. No, real men were often Alec d’Urberville: charming, seductive, classist, rapists. Others were Angel Clare: hypocritical, self-righteous, narrow-minded, cads.
While I’m sure there were men of honor in the late 19th century, I appreciate Thomas Hardy’s snapshot in time. Just as we long for the music and fashion of the 80s, while forgetting the AIDS epidemic and casual racism, sexism, and homophobia, we tend to look at Simpler Times through rose-colored glasses. Austen and Alcott paint a romantic picture of a dreadful time, while Hardy’s chronicle is just deeply disturbing. Tess exists in a world where family is everything, even when it’s not much. She’s beholden to lazy, thoughtless, selfish parents, and the children they carelessly bring forth. She’s the victim of both classism and sexism in her rape, as her standing as a woman of lower class leaves her not only with little credibility, but a societal acceptance that it’s somewhat her fault. Unlike the Bennet sisters or the March girls, Tess’s dedication to purity, goodness, and truth is her Achille’s heel. Were she more selfish or deceitful, these tragedies wouldn’t have befallen her and she’d have had a better life.
Before reading 26 classics in 18 months, I’d often assumed those with a romantic focus to be sappy and predictable. Thomas Hardy utterly debunks that assumption with a gritty image of the world and a bleak, hopeless approach to the fate of a good woman. The Wednesday Addams in me loved it. I give Tess of the D’Urbervilles three stars.
26. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen ⭐⭐
Having read and loved Pride and Prejudice, I decided on another Austen novel as my final classic in my list of 26. I chose Sense and Sensibility, assuming it would be as light and entertaining as its chronological successor.
Sense and Sensibility tells the tale of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, after the recent demise of their father. The second wife of Mr. Dashwood, Mrs. Dashwood is ultimately overlooked as his property changes hands, in favor of the son from his first wife and his greedy bride, Fanny. During their brief stay in their former home, Elinor becomes quite smitten with Fanny’s brother, Edward, much to Fanny’s distaste. Soon, the Dashwoods relocate to a cottage owned by a cousin, where they meet 35-year-old bachelor Colonel Brandon, who is taken with Marianne.
Uninterested in a man so much her senior, Marianne becomes swept away in a romance with the charming and ultimately deceitful John Willoughby. Through a complicated series of events, it’s revealed that Willoughby is engaged to another woman and intentionally led Marianne on, as one of many. Heartbroken, she realizes that Elinor’s quiet, slow burn relationship with Edward, which has been progressing in the background, has far more merit to it than one of passion and drama. In time, she begins to see Colonel Brandon for the man he is and each girl gets their happy ending.
Folks, I truly loved Pride and Prejudice. I expected to hate it, after years of hearing book snobs gush over it, but found it to be charming, funny, and starring relatable characters. I expected similar magic from Sense and Sensibility. Sadly, it came up short. While I can appreciate the overall titular themes, they felt preachy without the dynamic characters of Austen’s later work. In fact, Sense and Sensibility often felt like the rough draft of Pride and Prejudice. Elinor Dashwood’s sense came across as a shadow of Jane Bennet’s demureness. Similarly, Marianne’s sensibility could be seen in both Elizabeth and Lydia, as she unfairly judges an honorable man and allows herself to be charmed by a more insidious one.
Not only did the characters themselves pale in comparison to Jane, Elizabeth, Charles, and Darcy, but the story did as well. I found that the supporting storylines of Sense and Sensibility failed to add color and depth, instead creating distraction and confusion. The side characters were one-dimensional and forgettable, at best, while transparently existing only to further the plot, at worst. Having listened to the audio, I caught myself repeatedly rewinding portions to figure out who was talking with and about whom, because none of these people had distinct voices, and I don’t mean that literally. Whereas Pride and Prejudice seemed to tell a tale that transcends time, Sense and Sensibility came across as a one that was cautionary, while also somewhat shallow and forgettable. A part of me wonders if I’d have appreciated it more, had I read it first, but another part of my knows it would have likely been my last attempt at Austen. A fair effort, but certainly not her best work, I give Sense and Sensibility two stars, maybe two and a half.
I did it!
After a year and a half of reading classics and an additional year to write the reviews, I completed my goal to both read and review 26 classics! Once a librarian who never understood the appeal of classics, as you can see, I surprisingly enjoyed most of them. Here’s the breakdown:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkein
Six months ago, this week, I celebrated my first day as a stay-at-home mom, coincidentally on Thanksgiving Day. After working my entire adult life, as a student, a minimum wage movie theater employee, a minimum wage city employee, a substitute teacher, a circulation clerk, a librarian, a manager, and finally a teen librarian (some of these concurrently)… I quit.
I suppose that, like most first world workers, I had my grievances with my library system and the field at large, but overall, I adored my job. I worked with great people to serve a community I loved. I made teens feel safe and accepted. I helped curate a varied, current, and unbiased collection. After 10 years with the company, having worked at eight different branches, I had friends across our 19 library system. I was fulfilled… until Covid-19 hit.
I’ve said several times that if it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d likely be the kickass working mom I always intended. Even as a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered a pilot, a veterinarian, a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher, but never a mom. Of course I assumed I’d have a family, but Mom was not a career. My mother worked full time. Her mother worked full time. My dad’s mother worked full time. The little awareness I had of stay-at-home moms was primarily through a handful of distant relatives who my parents would mock for not working. Being a stay-at-home mom was for the wealthy and the devout. It truly never appealed to me, even after my girls were born… at least until they were about eight weeks old.
I’ve previously chronicled my decision to leave my career, three weeks after I returned to work, and again on my last day five weeks later. The abbreviated version was that I spent the worst part of an unprecedented global pandemic imagining my life without children. After a childhood which grew increasingly lonely, an isolating and terrifying first relationship, my solo twenties, I finally felt like I had the life I wanted. I was the person I wanted to be, someone who belonged. I was ready to start a family of my own, to create the house full of chaos, fun, and love that I’d yearned for as a child. I’d spend my 30s growing a large family that would expand to grandchildren and perhaps even great grandchildren. Yet, on February 13th, 2020, Jake came home from the urologist with devastating news. IVF was our only option. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars. It might not work. My future, as I pictured it, seem to go up in smoke.
I’ve published my infertility blog and won’t recap the heartache Jake and I went through to get pregnant, but it was indeed worthy of its own blog. As many survivors of infertility will tell you, that positive pregnancy test wasn’t the end. For the next seven months, I lived in fear that I would lose my babies, that we’d go in for an ultrasound, excited to see our growing girls, and the heartbeats would be gone. All the while, life went on as much as it could during some of the worst days of the pandemic. It was just three weeks after hearing those two little heartbeats that I was forced to put my 13-year-old beagle down, within days of my mother being put on a ventilator with Covid-19. The day after Mother’s Day she died of a heart attack. Six weeks later, my girls were born and I nearly died of pneumonia and heart complications, myself. It was just too much.
I tried, y’all. I tried to get excited about work, about seeing my coworkers/friends, but pandemic precautions had left me with nothing to enjoy about my job. I spent the better part of every day with nothing to do… so I looked at Instagram photos of my babies, read updates from the daycare about how they were doing, and looked up articles about how to determine if being a working mom just isn’t right for you. I cried almost every time I had to leave my girls and at the end of the day, when Jake and I pulled up to that daycare, I had my door open before the car stopped. I felt like a completely different person, no longer caring that the pandemic would eventually pass and the job I once loved would return to normal. I still didn’t even like other people’s kids, but I wanted to be with my girls.
Leaving my career was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made. I went through so much to be a librarian… but I went through a whole lot more to be a mom. Jake and I both hated that we were always in a rush, that every weekend was eaten away by basic errands and chores we couldn’t do during the week. We hated paying 2/3 of my paycheck to daycare, even when they were closed or the girls had to stay home because they were sick. We gave it time. Everyone said it would get better… but it never did.
One of my biggest fears when I left my job was that I’d regret my decision once my hormones leveled off. Every article I’d read suggested giving it six months, but the idea of waiting until my girls were nine months old just broke my already weakened heart. I talked to my stepmom about my dilemma and she shared the same concerns. She worked when her kids were small and felt it made her a better mother, just as I always thought I’d feel. Knowing how much I loved my job, she feared the same for me. No one seemed to think my quitting was a good idea. There comes a time though, when the devil you know is worse the devil you don’t and I was just so miserable working full time. So, I took a leap of faith and six months later…
… this former career woman, who used to quote “What you do is who you are,”has never been happier. I love being a stay-at-home mom. I get up in the morning and let my babies take as much time as they need to enjoy their breakfast. I spend my mornings doing the dishes and the laundry, making the bed, deep cleaning the kitchen and the bathrooms, all things I barely had time to do when I was working. I love laying on the floor of the playard and letting my daughters attack, as Violet pulls my hair and Scarlett climbs me and pokes me in the eye. I read Alice in Wonderland aloud or play Disney sing-alongs on YouTube from my phone, while both babies try to grab it out of my hand. I love that I can give them baths and let them play and try to climb the tub and each other, because I have the time to do so and don’t have to rush them off to bed.
That’s what it all boils down to, y’all. Even with twins, I have time I never had while working 40 hours a week. I get to take my girls for a 45 minute walk literally every day. We go to storytime, where we see other babies, play with lame library toys, and lick table legs. I can pick up groceries at 9:00 in the morning, before the stores get crowded and still have time to get my car washed. During naptime, I get to work out and stream and craft. I listen to audiobooks all day long. Best of all, literally the absolute best, I have the time and energy to take my girls to my hometown of Shetland, 45 minutes away, to spend one morning a week with my Gramma, the woman who’s given me everything.
I saw my Gramma multiple times a week when I lived in Shetland, but that changed when I married Jake and moved to Cherokee. I didn’t have much time during the week to drive to the other side of the city and weekends always seemed to get eaten up. I hated that she didn’t get to bond with the girls, especially considering Violet is named after her, as am I. Time was passing. My Gramma will be 88 years old this summer and I’m lucky she’s even still alive. I was terrified I’d blink and the years would be gone and so would she. I’d have wasted my chance to see her or let my girls know her. Now, we see her every week. My children actually reach for her and she knows their personalities. She counts down the days and though it’s still kind of a hassle, it’s so very worth it to make her so happy.
Not every woman feels this way about staying home, a fact with which I completely empathize, having always assumed I’d hate it. I don’t feel used up, as many women report. I don’t feel touched out. My girls play with each other. I don’t have to attend to them every second. Jake helps with all three meals, coming home for lunch, giving me time to talk to another adult in the middle of the day. We still have a loyal group of childless friends who come over every other weekend. I don’t feel lost in motherhood. I don’t need a career outside the home, because I’m still so intellectually curious that I’ve already told multiple people about the accordion gang violence I read about on BBC yesterday. I still have hobbies, friends, passions, and frustrations. I’m just not as stressed out all the time. I don’t need to decompress from work, while also somehow getting in some snuggles. I don’t have to stay up late to get time to myself. When Jake wants to visit his parents or go to a rodeo over the weekend, I’m not upset that I’m missing what little time I have with my babies. It’s fine, because we’ll just have fun on Monday.
I knew that I would be a working mom, just as surely as I knew that I’d loathe staying home, that I’d lose myself and no longer feel like a woman, just a mom. While I’ve been true to my word and my girls still don’t watch TV, play with our phones, sleep with us, or dictate our schedules, this is the one topic I knew would be a certain way for me as a parent, long before my girls were born, where I am officially eating crow. Just as being a stay-at-home mom is not right for many women, being a working mom just wasn’t right for me, no matter how I knew I’d feel. Maybe that will change in a few years and maybe not. I might go back to work or we might homeschool. I’m not going to try to make any predictions, because my previous one on this subject was so incredibly off the mark. This is what’s right for us, right now.
I was wrong. Everyone was wrong. I don’t regret quitting my job. I don’t feel isolated. I amhappy. While I truly carry no judgment for any woman who chooses to work, I recommend both options as a topic of consideration for every family. We millennials have been told our whole lives that the two-income household was the only way to thrive, to the point that many of us have never realistically considered another option. I know it’s easier said than done for the majority. I know it’s not a financial possibility for many, especially in higher cost of living areas. I know that the career repercussions would be insurmountable for others. I respect if it’s not possible or right for a family to have a stay-at-home parent. I’m glad we considered it, though, even though we never thought we would. I’m glad we ignored all of the conventional wisdom and didn’t wait. I’m glad that we found what works for us. If what you’re doing isn’t working for you, that’s okay. That includes going back to work. You’re not less intelligent, less successful or less maternal, less nurturing. You’re not letting anyone down if you forge your own path. You’re not a disappointment if you’re a different person than you once thought.
My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, at least half of which I could reference in casual conversation without making people uncomfortable… so, not mobster erotic romance. Since I’ve never actually read most of the classics I was assigned in high school and, as a teen librarian, my main customers were still being forced to do so, I figured I’d make all 26 classics. I finished them just after my girls were born, with a six month delay due to the headaches caused by infertility medications. I only violently hated one and generally disliked a second one, as you can see in my review of books 1-7 and 8-13. So, I present, books 14-19.
14. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I was prepared to hate this book, purely out of spite. After all the praise given to Anna Karenina, I lost some faith in the tastes of the masses and Pride and Prejudice is beloved by women everywhere. So, it was with a begrudging heart that I downloaded the book that has spawned a dozen adaptations and retellings, only to realize within the first few chapters, that I love Jane Austen.
As much as I adore romance, historical has never been my jam, since the genre as a whole takes a pretty liberal suspension of disbelief with its sexy, wealthy, successful heroes and ambiguously curvy, sassy, independent heroines. In this particular subgenre, I nearly always find the men to be laughably attractive and the women to be overly abrasive for the time period, as I will enthusiastically rant about given the briefest mention of the movie Titanic. Without a time travel plot, it’s just too jarring to read about relatably modern characters in a historical setting, so my enjoyment is pretty limited to titles written during said time periods, like Little Women or Pride and Prejudice.
Y’all, I’m aware that I’m peaking as a basic white girl as I type this, but Elizabeth Bennet is likely one of my top five literary heroines across all genres. Written by a woman indisputably familiar with the day, Lizzie Bennett stands up for herself, voices opinions, and pushes just the right number of buttons to make her strong and independent but not completely ignorant the social norms of the era. Similarly, Mr. Darcy is written as the ideal man of the early 19th century, intelligent, proud, and wealthy, but with a level of introversion and stoicism not often found in literary romantic heroes that still adheres to the acceptable norms of the day.
Lizzie was endlessly loyal to her family and friends, standing up to Darcy for his slight against her older sister, despite the riches and comfort a romantic match with him would have ensured. She cried for her younger sister when she’d ruined her own reputation and supported her friend’s unenviable marriage, after overcoming her shock and prejudice. While Mr. Darcy has never been my type, he was a believable romantic hero who somehow made infuriating, yet understandable judgements and endearing apologies. Anyone familiar with the romance genre knows the value of grovel and Fitzwilliam Darcy nailed it when he saved the Bennet name to make up for the harm he had inadvertently caused.
While I understand that the writing style of Jane Austen takes some acclimation, I find that to be true of essentially every classic I’ve read. Pride and Prejudice was full of witty, relatable, fleshed-out characters, right down to all seven members of the Bennet family. The romance was sweet and I found the hero and the heroine to be pretty equally flawed and redeemable. The depiction of the time period was easily visualized, but not overly detailed. As much as a cliché as it makes me, I have to say that Pride and Prejudice is officially one of my favorite books, deserving five stars.
15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkein ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Growing up, I often felt like an outsider among my family, as we watched Baywatch and Walker Texas Ranger, while I much preferred fantasy. Having been assigned a ridiculously high reading level, because American public schools are horrid at fostering a love of books, I often read solely to satisfy academic requirements that weren’t met by titles that would have actually interested me, like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. While I tried to watch the movies as a teenager, I found them slow and uninteresting and hadn’t really considered reading the books until I met my husband, who loves them.
I don’t know that it’s necessary to break down the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but I’ll give it a go. The story starts in the Shire, where Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his 111th birthday by telling everyone to kick rocks. Before he leaves, however, he gives his nephew, Frodo, the One Ring, ultimately leading the innocent hobbit on a great adventure to take the ring from the Shire with his three companions, Sam Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck. The quartet find themselves pursued by Black Riders, agents of the Dark Lord Sauron, who seeks the return of his Ring of Power. Shenanigans ensue in the form of singing (yet badass) elves, dangerous battles with the Black Riders, and a lot of walking.
I wanted to love this book. Sadly, while I recognize the brilliance behind the work, I’m simply unable to live up to my aspirations of becoming an LotR Fangirl. I have a great deal of respect for the fact that Tolkien literally set the stage for high fantasy. In an age when it would have been impossible to depict such a tale on screen, Tolkien painted a vivid and beautiful picture of Middle Earth and its inhabitants, though some of the latter have been decried for their obvious anti-Semitic stereotypes. Had I been read this story as a child, tucked snugly in bed by a mother who enjoyed fantasy, I’d have surely adored it… but I wasn’t.
I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time at age 33, already familiar with tales such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. While I recognize that, in many ways, The Lord of the Rings is the source material for these stories, knowing that fact doesn’t make it any less redundant to read a painfully detailed description of settings I can easily picture from my prior knowledge of high fantasy. It also doesn’t pick up the pace. It’s not that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a good book. It’s an amazing feat of literature, the literal metric for all epic fantasy to follow. A product of the age it was written, it’s just kind of a slog compared to those followers and so, I give it four stars.
16. 1984, by George Orwell ⭐⭐⭐
2020 was a bad year to read a bunch of politically dystopian classics and 1984 was no exception with its tales of government corruption from censorship to legit brainwashing. 1984 has long been a reference point for both American political parties to warn the public about overreach from the other. Since Orwell modeled his make-believe society after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, I personally find both claims to be pretty hyperbolic. Even if it is more representative of China or North Korea than present day U.S., that doesn’t make 1984 any less worthy of a read.
Orwell’s final novel tells the story of Winston Smith’s gradual betrayal of The Party, rulers of a province of what was once Great Britain but is now a totalitarian superstate called Oceania following an ideology called Ingsoc or English Socialism. Winston is an outwardly loyal worker of The Party, altering historical documents so the regime appears to have always been in the right, though he secretly opposes their rule. He begins his gradual betrayal through an affair and illicit meetings with those who claim to be members of the resistance, growing increasingly careless. As one might predict, Winston is discovered by the Thought Police and his story doesn’t end well, serving as a bleak cautionary tale against protest of an all powerful government.
While I wouldn’t recommend reading 1984 (or any of the other politically disturbing classics I’ve reviewed) in an election year, it’s definitely a compelling read. It primarily suffers in its characterization, an entirely forgivable flaw considering the predominant goal of The Party is the quelling of individuality or independent thought. This does, however, make both Winston and his lover, Julia, less sympathetic protagonists. By extension, the grim ending of 1984 doesn’t hit as hard as say, the ending to To Kill a Mockingbird, warranting an overall three stars.
17. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In my experience, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most frequently praised classics and horror novels. It seemed an obvious choice for my project, considering how much I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the story of Frankenstein is woefully misrepresented in every adaptation, as even those who’ve never read it will insist that the title references the creator and not the monster. The monster doesn’t actually have a name, because Victor Frankenstein is an unethical blasphemer who gets what he has coming to him. The deviations go well beyond this, however, overlooking the point of the story entirely.
The tale of Frankenstein starts as a correspondence between an arctic explorer named Captain Walton and his sister, as he passes along the story of an emaciated man he’s rescued, Victor Frankenstein. Victor has succeeded in the unthinkable, bringing forth life from spare parts. Tragically, this scientific marvel has gone horribly awry, ultimately finding Victor chasing his creation through the frozen tundra… and it is all his fault.
After Victor breathes life into his creature, he’s horrified by his achievement and abandons his innocent, if repulsive, creation to wander the countryside alone. While Victor returns to his childhood home in Italy, his monster is left to fend for himself, growing attached to a family he secretly observes in a cottage in the woods. Over time, the Creature teaches himself to speak and read, longing for love and companionship, yet only interacting with a blind old man. When the family discovers the monster they flee in terror, causing him to seek out Victor’s aid. During his travels, the Creature is attacked for trying to help humans and yearns for vengeance against his creator. When the monster finally catches up with Victor and shares his tale, he begs him to create a companion, promising to retreat into the wilderness with his bride. If refused, the monster vows to kill everyone Frankenstein loves.
It’s clear from the start that this story doesn’t end well for Victor or the Creature, but the turns the tale takes are shockingly dark for a classic written by a 19-year-old woman over 200 years ago. While the movie adaptations of Frankenstein focus on the horror of the pieced-together monster, it’s clear that Shelley intended him to be a sympathetic character. In fact, Victor comes off as the true villain, playing God only to shirk his responsibility as a creator and lead his family and friends to pay the price. Frankenstein’s Creature isn’t simply a 19th century serial killer, but an abused and tortured creation seeking only love and affection. Frankenstein is the shockingly complex story of a being heartbroken by society’s complete ostracization. This book easily ranked in my top five and I’m disappointed that no movie has done justice to the intended story, which absolutely earns five stars.
18. Anthem, by Ayn Rand ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I first read Anthem in the 10th grade and loved it. When I say that, I mean I had the email addresses and Xanga tags Liberty-53000 and The Golden One. It wasn’t Pre-AP English kid pretention, either… or rather it wasn’t solely Pre-AP English kid pretention. I genuinely adored the story of one man quietly rebelling against a collective regime that had destroyed all sense of individuality and ultimately finding happiness. Considering 17 years had passed, I felt it was reasonable to countthis title in my total classics, despite it technically qualifying as a reread.
Anthem is a novella, written by Ayn Rand while she was taking a break from her research for The Fountainhead. It tells the story of Equality7-2521 as he records his life and perceived transgressions in a forbidden journal in an underground tunnel. Equality 7-2521 shares details of growing up in a collective society, where individualism is a crime, where there is no I, only We. He writes about the “curse” of intellectual curiosity that plagues him, a streetsweeper, the experiments he does in his tunnel and eventually, of a flaxen-haired girl he’s dubbed The Golden One.
Since Anthem is literally 105 pages long, I won’t give more details, as it’s not my goal to completely spoil these books. I will, however, report that Equality 7-2521’s story ends in a happily ever after. I’m sure that’s partially to credit for why I loved Anthem at 33, just as much as I did at 16. I think this is also due to the fact that, despite Rand’s works having quite the reputation to the contrary, there’s just something so palatable aboutthis book. After having read essentially every weird dystopian science fiction classic for this project, I can say that Anthem is in the minority in both of those, possibly competing with George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the latter. Like We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anthem sprung from the mind of someone who lived in Communist Russia, but lacked the confusing jargon, world building, and translation issues despite having been written only 16 years later. It’s just more readable and I truly enjoyed We.
I only wish Anthem hadn’t been a novella. I’d have loved a more fleshed-out picture of Equality 7-2521’s society and how it came about, of the characters and what made them different, if they even were different or if everyone felt the same way. Of course, that was part of the magic, the not knowing, but it does leave a little something to be desired. With that, I give Anthem four stars.
19. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brone ⭐⭐⭐
I was supposed to despise Wuthering Heights. It was going to be a contender against Anna Karenina for worst classic ever. It’s predominately loathed by readers and according to the judgmental ninnies at r/romancebooks, anyone who enjoys it condones abuse. Maybe my low expectations are actually to credit for why I genuinely enjoyed this book, but aside from the complaints about length, I found many of the criticisms of Wuthering Heights to be unfounded.
This bookwas a lot of things for me, but romance wasn’t one of them. I think that inaccurate classification might be why it gets so much hate. It’s a pretty universally accepted rule that all romance ends in a Happily Ever After or HEA, which is far from the case for Heathcliff and Catherine’s story. No, Wuthering Heights is more accurately described as a story of vengeance, as Heathcliff sets out to get his retribution for the racism and mistreatment he’s experienced from Catherine’s brother, Hindley Earnshaw, and the neighbor for whom she left him, Edgar Linton. If read with Heathcliff in mind as the protagonist, but not as a romantic lead, Wuthering Heights is an epic tale of revenge as a dish best served cold and I found it delightful.
As with most classics, this one is unforgivably long, but that adds something to the story as the reader experiences the wait for justice right alongside Heathcliff, while the years pass. Essentially no one in this story is even remotely likable, but that made it more fun for me to witness as they all got their comeuppance through Heathcliff’s sociopathic shenanigans amidst the gloomy backdrop of the moors. This story really was the ultimate tale of just desserts and I was pleasantly surprised, though I can understand why others wouldn’t enjoy such a bleak tale, especially one so often billed as romance and therefore award it only three stars. Additionally, I highly recommend the MTV movie adaptation starring Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen as a fabulously terrible trip through time to 2003. It is painfully bad and the best $3 I’ve ever spent on Ebay.
Ten years ago, I’d have given anything to be a librarian. I was in graduate school, working as a half-time circulation clerk and substitute teaching and I dreamt of the day that I could call myself by that title. I wanted to work full time at one job, helping people choose a new book, file for disability, fill out job applications and build resumes, find a safe place to live after their divorce. I would have been on cloud nine to be a teen librarian, giving kids a welcoming place to learn a new skill, make friends, feel respected and valued by an adult. I prayed for this job, every night, and when I got it, it was, in many ways, exactly as I’d hoped.
Over the last eight and a half years, I’ve done all of the above and more. I’ve rushed after an escaped toddler, to keep him from getting hit by a car in the parking lot. I’ve steered a developmentally disabled woman away from online dating, so she wouldn’t get stabbed in an IHOP parking lot. I’ve convinced someone to report her stalker to the police and watched her tear up, finally having her fears validated. I’ve built a resume from scratch for an ex-offender and celebrated when he got a job. I’ve called 911 after a drug overdose and confronted people for looking at porn on the public computers. I’ve comforted teens whose parents aren’t willing or able to do so. I’ve mourned the suicide of a 16-year-old boy. I’ve even gotten one of my teen volunteers hired as a library aide. I’ve been a manager and given references and helped people grow. I’ve moved one library and helped build another from the ground up. Being a librarian has been nearly as magical as I’d always dreamed… and today is my last day.
In December of 2018, Jake and I decided to stop preventing pregnancy. By June of 2019, we were trying in earnest. By September, I was tearfully asking him to get a semen analysis. In February of 2020, we discovered IVF was our only hope for children and I’d have given anything to be a mom. I dreamt of the day that I could call myself by that title. As you might know, despite the pandemic, we were pregnant by the end of 2020 and I gave birth to two healthy girls this past June. It almost killed me, literally, but I’m not sure it made me stronger.
I always planned to work full time when I had children, following in the footsteps of my mother, her mother, and my dad’s mother. Jake knew this from the beginning and we planned our life around this model. We thrived on two incomes and bought our home just 10 minutes from our workplaces, with City Hall just up the street from the library. We took out credit cards and cashed in investments to pay for our $30,000 worth of babies, knowing that we’d make six figures and could afford to pay it off. Throughout my pregnancy, this was our plan. Even after my terrifying birth story, we never discussed an alternative. I would stay home during my recovery and then I would go back, putting our girls in a church daycare just 12 minutes away. I’d get to be the career woman and the mom. Now, I’m here and it’s exactly as I’ve always planned… and itsucks.
For eight weeks, Jake and I have been waking at 6:00 to feed our girls, before getting them ready for daycare and ourselves ready for work. We leave the house by 7:30 and drop them off at 7:45, together. We each go home for lunch, where we do chores that we don’t want to do later, then finish the day at 5:00 exactly and head to pick them up. We get home around 5:30 and try to balance daily tasks with enjoying our babies while they’re awake. By 6:00, they’re asleep and we make dinner and eat before they have their final bottle at 8:00 and we put them down. Then, we do household chores and watch a show before bed or Jake plays videogames while I read. This is every night, until the weekend, when we run ourselves ragged catching up on the errands we couldn’t do during the week, because we didn’t want to miss out on time with our children. Instead of enjoying them at home, we drag them around while we shop for groceries, get the oil changed, and return packages and store purchases. Then, we usually share them with family or friends at some get-together, before returning home to put them to bed.
As a child, I had a handful of careers I wanted when I grew up, ranging from veterinarian to lawyer to nurse to teacher. Stay at Home Mom never made the list. All my life, I’ve pictured having an impactful career, where I work full time, and then come home to my family. I went to college and then grad school and worked two jobs while carving my professional path. Finally, I got a position I love with understanding managers, where I make good money and have a predictable schedule. I have as close to zero commute as possible and a clean, safe, nearby daycare minutes away. It’s the American dream… and it’s a lie. Why didn’t anyone tell me this? For all the complaining parents do, and it is endless, why has no one simplified it to not having enough time, in a dual income family? I have never really considered myself a modern feminist, but I still thought I could do this. This is the model most people follow. Of course we would, too.
Six weeks, y’all. I made it six weeks before handing in my notice to leave my dream job, the job I can’t seem to build any enthusiasm for anymore, while simultaneously remembering how good it once made me feel. Everyone keeps telling me that it gets better, but when I ask how much time they get with their children at night, they almost always answer less than an hour. This isn’t just parents of babies, but those with school-aged children, too. After two back-to-back rounds of Pandemic IVF, an emergency C-section due to extensive pneumonia and pregnancy-induced heart complications that impact .00001% of women, three blood transfusions, four days in the ICU and three more in labor and delivery… I get an hour with my girls each night. I have a cardiologist now and $9,000 in hospital bills, but I have an hour with my babies.
In a perfect world, I could just go half-time again, doing the same job for fewer hours, but my system doesn’t hire half-time librarians anymore. The only half-time positions don’t require an MLIS and pay $5 less an hour. While I’d be thrilled to take one of these and it’s a possibility that one might open in the next few months, if I do so as an internal candidate, I’ve been informed that my retirement will be frozen. If I’m no longer full time, but I haven’t terminated employment, I won’t be able to touch my retirement, not to add to it or roll it over or continue investing in it. Since Jake and I wouldn’t plan for me to return to full time or quit, for at least 15 years, $75,000 would sit in an account and be eaten by inflation. I was told, verbatim, that I do have a choice, though: I can terminate employment… and so I did.
Leaving my job has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I worked so hard for this. I spent years praying for this exact position, a teen librarian job on the outskirts of the county, where I could make big city money and lead a small town life. I feel like I’m losing a part of myself. Unlike other people’s dream jobs, it was more or less exactly as wonderful as I’d dreamt. Sure, there were frustrations with other departments and budgeting decisions and weird niche emphases in my specialization, but my day to day? It was awesome. I made a difference. I made good money. I made friends. I had fun…
… then Covid-19 hit.
Maybe things would have been different, if it weren’t for the pandemic, the way we had to get pregnant, losing my mom the day after Mother’s Day, or almost dying when my girls were born. Maybe if my job had actually been enjoyable for the last two years, instead of a terrifying effort not to get sick during IVF, while trying to simultaneously appease the conflicting feelings of staff and the public… maybe I’d have been able to make the adjustment, like all other women seem to do. I remember loving my job. I looked forward to work… but I can’t do it anymore. I keep thinking that women do this all the time, but then I talk to them and realize that it doesn’t get better. They just get used to it and those aren’t the same thing. I don’t want to get used to feeling like I don’t know my daughters, to being exhausted and irritable, to constantly rushing and never having enoughhours in the day. Maybe I’m weak or the last two years have broken something inside of me, because I don’t have it in me and I never thought I would feel this way. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It doesn’t feel right, though, far more than leaving my job doesn’t feel right.
Iwish I could split myself in two, like Sabrina Spellman à la The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I could send one Belle to the library, where she’d comfort a teenage boy who just came out to his mom, recommend some fitting YA books, and invite him to the next teen program. Then, I could stay home and care for my girls and my house, freeing up time to spend as a family later, never missing a milestone. That’s just it, though. Just as Sabrina sent her other self to rule Hell, I’d send my other self to work full time. Even in this fantasy, I stay home.
I’ve cried myself sick over the last few days, but it’s nothing compared to the tears I’ve cried over the last eight weeks. I want to be a librarian, but I want to be with my girls more. Maybe things would be different if it hadn’t all been sohard, but I’m not strong enough for this… literally. Jake and I would like to have another baby, transferring another embryo (singular) this summer, but it would be the kind of pregnancy that involves a team with a cardiologist on it. I can’t do that and have twins and work full time. I can’t even do this. For all I went through to get my dream job, I went through a lot more to get my girls. There’s still hope that a half-time position will open in the next six months or so, so perhaps I’ll be able to return to my role in a more manageable capacity… at least that’s what I tell myself, so I can keep it together as Grady, the teen volunteer I got hired on, thanks me for all I’ve done for him.
My heart is breaking for the career I’m giving up, but there’s a chance I can have it again later and there’s absolutely zero chance that my girls will ever be this small again. I keep thinking about my mother, what she’d have done differently. If she weren’t my age during the 90s, when it was just assumed that a woman would work, she’d have chosen to stay home or work part-time. I’m certain. I doubt that would have saved her relationship with my dad, but it might have literally saved her sanity and her relationship with her children. I don’t want to have regrets, but I seem to have no choice. As much as my heart is breaking to leave my library, it breaks more to think of missing these years. So for now, this chapter of my life has closed and I’ll just have to see what the future holds.
I’m sure I’m not only speaking for myself, when I say that 2020 was an isolating year. The shut-downs began in mid-March in my area and, despite my Gramma constantly quoting Trump’s claims that we’d be “wide open by Easter,” it wasn’t long before I was beginning to realize this wasn’t going away until we had a vaccine.
I worked the last Sunday the library was open, March 15th. We closed for two weeks, which quickly turned to three, then four, then six. Fortunately for my husband and I, my library system paid every single employee their full pay and benefits and didn’t even assign us any work, while we were at home. I was luckier than most in my field… than most in general. Regardless, this all happened on the heels of some really difficult personal issues and suddenly… I was all alone. Jake is an essential worker and never had a single shutdown-related day off, which was certainly for the best in the long run, but in the short-term, sort of just left… me, dealing with some really tough stuff during a pandemic.
Those days have mostly blurred in my mind. They were a series of Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart trips for presumed essentials, because the idea of not having access to something was freaking me out almost as much as the rising virus cases. They were hours of playing Netflix in the background, while obsessively reading the news. They were endless walks around the neighborhood, accompanied by audiobooks. They were pings from apps about the rising cases and paranoia that my job wouldn’t be there when this all ended. Mostly, though, they were lonely. I’d gone from seeing my teens three days a week, to not knowing when I’d ever see them again. I’d gone from having family nights and weekends, dropping in on Taco Tuesday with my pals from the West Side Library, seeing friends and coworkers daily, attending meetings and breakroom potlucks, to the occasional text message conversation and talks with my Gramma that always ended when it got political. Easter was spent at home, with Jake, attempting to enjoy a beloved family holiday with a Sad Ham for two and a Zoom call with my family. Not that the rest of the year was leagues closer to normalcy, but the solitude of those six weeks, even for a proud homebody, was devastating.
It’s been about three and a half years since I deleted my Facebook account, a decision I’d advocate for most and March of 2020 was the first time I’ve ever genuinely considered returning. At least with Facebook, I’d be able to connect with family, see their updates, message them, and maybe feel a little less alone during a pandemic. Then I remembered my previous social networking experiences and thought about all of the political articles, rants, and conspiracy theories I’d be treated to, by both my extremely left and extremely right family members, who have little to no understanding of basic social media etiquette.
I thought about the time my crazy redneck uncle told my high school friend that he wasn’t “no better than” him, just because he had a “two dollar degree”… without knowing that this man had no more than a high school education and was a former marine. I thought about the digital slap fights between women who didn’t even know each other in high school, let alone today and the family gossip based entirely on speculation from social media posts. I thought about the mommy wars and the inevitable comments about how women without children had no idea how hard all of this could be, the comparisons of busy schedules and stress. I noted how awesome it was that, after three years, my family had finally accepted that I was no longer on social media and every piece of news, from family parties to family deaths, was going to have to be delivered over the phone… as it should be, and I didn’t want to ruin that progress. It was already a difficult year and all of the above were not going to make me feel better. So, in lieu of social media, I clung to strangers like a lifeline, through various subreddits.
I started with a subreddit that I’d previously frequented in phases, one populated by somewhat traditional women, that focused on dating and improving your marriage. At first it was fun and I felt like I was socializing with real people. Then… it turned and comments were made about how women shouldn’t work if they have children and women who didn’t want them would live lives full of regret, so I wrote a snarky comment about how the subreddit was no longer for me and left.
Next, I tried to connect with my fellow librarians, since I missed interacting on a professional basis at work. This was probably my second to briefest attempt to connect through Reddit, because libraries can be politically toxic, ironic for a profession rooted in serving all. By ironic, I mean wildly hypocritical. After ignoring the inevitable politics in posts and comments for a few weeks, I saw one directed at teen readers advisory. That’s totally my jam… or so I thought. This post was from a straight, white man, asking for book recommendations that starred straight, white boys, who were progressive and inclusive and championed their minority friends, be they Black, gay, trans, what-have-you. The comments were filled with criticism about how boys should be able to look up to female leads and tangents about how books have historically only starred boys. Riiiiiight, but do we really want the only male heroes young boys look up to to be the kids from Lord of the Flies? Boys should make do with female leads, even though you’re arguing the reverse is a disservice? Are we not allowed to have role models that everyone can see themselves in, or is it just white males? Aside from these terrible arguments, there were entirely unrelated rants about the lack of representation of lesbians in YA fiction and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to talk about helping teens, all of them, not just the ones that made my resume look or gave me conference talking points. I just wanted to bond over the profession I’d missed and in just a few weeks, Reddit had made me want to leave it altogether.
So, I decided to try something a little lighter in the Gilmore Girls thread. What could possibly go wrong in sharing a fandom?!?!? Y’all, in 2020 I learned that all fandoms be fucking crazy. People wrote pages about how every single character was abusive or narcissistic or sociopathic or ::insert WebMD diagnosis here:: for fucking Gilmore Girls. They attacked me for saying I thought Melissa McCarthy’s modern-day projects were crass, for thinking Dean was alright in the early seasons, for liking Emily… and they fought each other over the exact same topics, viciously. Really?!?! Am I the only one who thinks that I shouldn’t have to thicken my 2020 raw skin to discuss Gilmore Girls?!?! But folks, I’ll tell you… it was nothing compared to the Harry Potter fandom.
I made it a day, y’all. I made it one day in the Harry Potter subreddit, before someone tore into more for a very mild defense about how Draco Malfoy was just a kid and a pawn to his family. The response was a half-page long and went on about how when this person was a teenager, they knew better than to do the things Draco did, that they weren’t bullies, because they were more self-aware. Instead of replying that they might not have been bullies as teenagers, but certainly were now, or writing a lengthy comparison to the Malfoys and organized crime families, I deleted my comment, left the feed, and never returned. Apparently the Harry Potter subreddit is moderated by Lord Voldemort, himself.
In the meantime, even the subs I followed for some light pick-me-ups, like r/interestingasfuck and r/aww and r/crafts became hostile. I stumbled on an anti-Catholic rant in comments, others about how people who won’t let their dogs sit on the couch were abusive, and when I shared a photo of an art project my library teens did, someone left multiple comments about how I could have done it differently and it could have been improved.
Finally, r/romancebooks, which had been a surprisingly fun and accepting space over the course of a few months, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, tastes ranged from Pride and Prejudice to rapey drug dealer porn and all were accepted, if not shared. Then Bridgerton hit and newbie fans to the genre joined, lacking an understanding of how very many sub-genres it possessed, and the judgement sky-rocketed. Even authors only a few steps off the beaten path, like Kristen Ashley and Joanna Wylde, were being vilified for “romanticizing abuse” and posters were theorizing about how the authors themselves must have horrible personal lives and joking about egging their houses. Excuse me, but has anyone ever checked in on George R. R. Martin’s sister, to make sure she hasn’t been sold to rapey horse lords? How about Stephen King’s kids? Are we worried they might have been butchered by some ancient folklore creature? No? Then I guess it’s only women we judge for their art and men get a pass. After another poster began harassing me on my last post, I’d had it. I rage quit Reddit. I deleted every username and installed blocking software on my laptop, phone, and workstation computer, so I couldn’t even browse absent-mindedly without a username.
After the Reddit debacle, I searched for a replacement, but all of the less popular forums seemed just as hostile. I even messaged a friend and asked, point-blank, “Are there any good, supportive forums online, or is everyone a jerk?” Her immediate response was “Everyone’s a jerk.” This was the same friend who tearfully messaged me when someone called her a bad mom for working, on a Dave Ramsey Facebook post. I had to point out that this woman was clearly not spending her time engaging in interactive puppet shows, if she was tearing down other moms on Facebook.
Twitter was out, because I thought I couldn’t possibly care less about celebrities. Their Covid-19 Poor Little Rich People attempts to relate to the common man proved me wrong. Instagram is just as bad as Facebook, unsurprisingly as they’re both owned by Mark Zuckerberg and are notorious for causing FOMO and body issues and just general judgement toward all women. The only perk to Instagram is the lesser degree of political commentary and even that can crop up seemingly out of nowhere. Even BoredPanda, a feel-good site with articles about cute little animals, is politically out of control in the comments. Why can’t I look at pictures of kittens in peace?!?!
So, I finally accepted the truth, at 33 years old: there are no supportive spaces on the Internet. Adults will forever lecture kids and teenagers about cyber bullying, as they type out hateful messages to people they should be building up, on Instagram and Twitter and Reddit and Facebook.
I left Facebook years ago and I’m reminded that I had the right idea, as I not only feel less criticized and frustrated without any of it, but have more time to do the things I actually care about, like read and sew and work on my digital photo albums. Hopefully, that list will soon include interactions with Real Live People, so I won’t feel the need to grasp for human connection online. At the very least, however, I now have more time to entertain Future Belle and you people.
My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, half of which were not dragon erotica. Since my library teens still have to read the classics and I never actually read any, myself, I decided those 26 titles would be undoubtedly considered classics. I’ve surprisingly enjoyed most of my choices, as evidenced by my review of the first seven, here. So, I present, books 8-13.
8. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy ⭐
I’ll be blunt. I have never before finished a book I hated as much as Anna Karenina. I am so tired of people who loved this book telling me that I just didn’t understand or read it thoroughly. Classics are almost as bad as politics in that, if someone doesn’t agree with another person, they must be less intelligent or not know all of the facts, because we’re all arrogant assholes, incapable of respecting different opinions. Not only did I read this book, I also read many analyses on this book, to make sure I fully understood it, after these insistences. I did and I still hated it. If you love this book and consider it the greatest work of literature ever, I respect that, but you might not want to read further.
Anna Karenina tells the story of Russian socialite, Anna’s, affair with Vronsky, some dude she saw for four minutes on a train and for whom she decided to throw away all of her social standing and clout, cuz feeeelz, despite knowing the society she lives in and the consequences of an indiscreet affair. Women are stupid that way. s/ As Anna falls deeply in love with Vronksy, her husband, Karenin, essentially demands discretion or divorce. Selfish cow that Anna is, she denies both and nearly dies birthing Vronsky’s child. Karenin forgives Vronksy, which embarrasses him and he tries and fails to kill himself. Ultimately, Anna and Vronsky run away together, with Anna forfeiting her son, because she is a horrible, wretched person and ultimately being shunned by society, no matter where she goes, while growing more and more insecure of Vronsky’s affection. Finally, in the best scene in both the terrible book and the terrible movie, she throws herself under the train and I have a new fandom: the train from Anna Karenina.
Alongside this story, we read the tale of Kitty, Levin, and farming. Kitty, Anna’s young sister-in-law is also infatuated with Vronksy, so certain that he’ll propose to her that she turns down the good and honorable, if provincial, Levin, only to have her heart broken, when she realizes that Vronsky never had any true intentions toward her. Over the next year, she spends time in grief and self-reflection, mourning her mistake, and because she’s a very good girl, Levin comes back and asks her to marry him again. She says yes and they move to the country, where there’s farming and tilling and plowing for entire chapters, in a needlessly drawn out symbolic message of “idleness and city life bad, hard work and rural life good.” Kitty ends up happy and Anna ends up dead. The end.
This book is 864 pages long, so the above summary is of course oversimplified. I’ve read that the book isn’t supposed to be about likable characters and I get that. I liked The Great Gatsby, because it was beautifully written about awful people. This wasn’t. Anna Karenina is the kind of classic that makes people hate classics, because everyone claims it’s amazing.
Why is Tolstoy above reproach for the writing tropes we mock today? Let’s start with the instalove. There was no explanation for Anna’s affection for Vronsky. I get it, she wasn’t really given the chance to choose her path, but poor women weren’t either, and many of them remained faithful, even after four minutes on a train with another man. Her husband wasn’t abusive or cruel. Despite the ridiculous arguments I had on Reddit about this book, there is zero evidence that Karenin mistreated Anna. He even raised her illegitimate child. He was kind, if distant, and she had literally every thing she wanted. She was doing pretty damned good for 19th century Russia, so when she threw it all away, I needed a reason… besides boredom. If Tolstoy had written a compelling love story between Anna and Vronksy, I could’ve felt a lot more for Anna, torn between her head and her heart. However, she literally throws away everything, including her son, for this man she barely knows and we’re never told why. Even if it was adventure and excitement, which I don’t buy considering her unexplained obsession with Vronsky, she didn’t do anything with Vronsky she couldn’t have done with Karenin. No. It was instalove and vaginal tingles and that’s just as stupid as when modern romance novelists do it.
As for Kitty and Levin… I don’t hate their storyline, but I’m often told that this book was feminist and are you fucking kidding me?!?! There is not a single point, in this book of 732 characters, where Tolstoy introduces a woman who is more than one-dimensional. His lead females are The Madonna and The Whore. Kitty keeps her legs closed and her eyes down and gets the life she wants. Anna follows her passion and ends up under a train. Even the female side characters are vapid and shallow hens. This book is not feminist, no not even for the time period, in part because we get no compelling reason for Anna’s actions. She’s just a bitch in heat, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, a slave to her baser nature. The fact that society treats her differently than her lover doesn’t even garner much feeling, because she was the one who was married. While her brother was treated differently for his affair and that might have had some merit with different telling, the execution of this tale just painted a picture of a horrible woman I was glad to see die, as opposed to a woman caught up in a double standard. If the reason this book was empowering was Kitty’s personal growth and self-improvement, Louisa May Alcott told that story much better, and much more quickly, in Little Women.
Then there was the length. So much of this book is filler, dragging out a poorly told story about awful people, that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. I’ve read long books. I’ve read books about horrible people. I’ve read long books about horrible people. I’ve mentioned several times that I love Steinbeck, but his filler is interesting or pivotal to the storyline. Tolstoy is just in love with himself and takes full advantage of a lack of more entertaining pastimes to ramble on about nothing for almost 900 pages, because the people of the 19th century couldn’t discreetly download alien erotica for a better time.
So there you have it. I hated everything about this book, aside from the Kitty/Levin plot, which was still simplistic and preachy. I hated the characters, the writing, the oversimplified themes, the Poor Little Rich Girl plot, the length, and my favorite character, by far, was the train. I’m glad I read this title halfway through the year, because this is truly the kind of classic that makes people hate classics. I give Anna Karenina a single begrudging star.
9. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway ⭐⭐⭐
Yes, I Googled “shortest classics” again. However, I surprisingly enjoyed this audiobook, which was only two hours and some change. It told the depressing story of a fisherman who meets his ultimate opponent, the marlin that will bring him glory, only to hook him but fail to reign him in, as he’s pulled further out to see. Eventually, both the old man and the marlin face defeat, as the man makes it to the shore, his glorious catch mostly devoured by sharks.
That’s pretty much it. There’s not much more to the summary of a two hour book, nor was there a way to avoid that spoiler, but it was well-written and engaging, as it painted a picture of ultimate futility. Honestly, it’s brevity was what I liked most and not just because I wanted to check another book off my total. It made for a more exciting story and a more relatable protagonist. It was a simple tale, told simply, with no forced happy ending. I give The Old Man and the Sea three stars.
10. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle was assigned to me in my high school AP U.S. History class. If I recall, I read about half of it, before the English teacher everyone hated ruined the ending for me and I quit. I do remember thinking it was boring and depressing and that the names were all very confusing, so I wasn’t really looking forward to reading it, this year. Y’all, this was one of my favorite books. While the Lithuanian names were indeed a bit confusing, I listened to the audio, which substantially mitigated my troubles and I’d highly recommend the same, if you have similar struggles.
The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, who starts off as a brawny, hardworking immigrant, eager to support his family. Despite overcrowding of immigrants wanting a job in the Chicago meat packing district, Jurgis finds work immediately, as a strong and hardy man, as do the other members of his large family. Despite their dreams and willingness to work for them, however, the Rudkus family is doomed from the start, by the sheer number of every day villains, waiting to take advantage. I can say little more about the plot, without ruining the story for you, but I found Jurgis and his family to be compelling portrayals of immigrants done wrong, who can therefore never catch a break. The only criticism I have of this story is that the last chapter reads as Upton Sinclair’s personal Socialist manifesto, which really didn’t fit the tone of the book, regardless of my political opinions.
Speaking of which, I am a Capitalist. I consider our system flawed, of course, but I also think it’s the only political system that will ever work in the United States, agreeing with Theodore Roosevelt that “Radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” That being said, the political themes of this work didn’t turn me off until the end, when they became overtly preachy. Before that, they were both organic and historically accurate. The turn of the 20th century was a dark time to be alive and anyone who says we haven’t come a long way isn’t paying attention, as The Jungle is largely credited with the creation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, due to the deplorable and stomach-churning conditions outlined in this book, despite Sinclair’s intent to call attention to the absues of workers. In time, however, that has clearly improved, as well, since pickle factory workers no longer lose their feet. I give The Jungle four stars and warn the reader that there really is no happy ending.
11. The Pearl, by John Steinbeck ⭐⭐⭐
For me, John Steinbeck is the author I love, while completely understanding others’ distaste for him, as he’s often overly wordy and descriptive. This was a novella, however, so I got all the bleak joy of Steinbeck in just a couple of hours.
The Pearl tells the story of poor pearl diver, Kino’s, discovery of “The Pearl of the World,” that one pearl that will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, just when he needs it most. His fortune almost immediately turns sour, however, with the doctor he needs trying to overcharge him, market buyers trying to swindle him, and even blatant thieves coming after him.
As Kino and his wife, Jauna, escape into the night to find somewhere to sell the pearl, tragedy strikes and Imma just give you the #deadbaby trigger warning. Kino and Juana make their way back to their home, realizing that the pearl was never a blessing, but a curse as Kino heartbrokenly flings the pearl back into the ocean, scorning mans greed and inate evil.
Have you ever read those stories about people who win the lottery, only to have it completely destroy their lives? That’s essentially The Pearl, as Kino’s world is torn apart by finally acquiring the riches he’s spent his life seeking. No amount of wealth can overcome the doctor’s racism and avarice. His community and friends turn against him. Strangers chase after him, bringing the ultimate tragedy down on him. It’s not a happy tale and doesn’t have a happy ending, but I enjoyed the bleak symbolism, despite occasionally feeling that the better path would be obvious, even to Kino. I give The Pearl three stars.
12. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Not a single person has recognized this title, when cited, but Alas, Babylon is a classic post-apocalyptic novel, set in 1959, during the Cold War. The premise sees the scales tipping, when through a series of unfortunate events, the Soviet Union perceives a first strike and attacks the United States, wiping out all power and communication in fictional Fort Repose, Florida.
Randall Braggs is living an aimless life when his older brother, an Air Force Intelligence officer, warns him that the world is essentially about to end and sends his own family to Florida, in hopes of securing their safety, while he stays behind in Nebraska, knowing he won’t make it, himself. Randy finds himself the keeper of his grieving sister-in-law, nephew, and niece, in addition to a band of townspeople, including the spinster town librarian (fuck you, Pat frank), the Black farmers up the road, his girlfriend and her family, and the local doctor after “The Day,” when the entire state has become a contaminated zone. Throughout the book, the group faces many threats, from lack of food, to illness, to highwaymen, as they try to survive the aftermath the blast.
I won’t lie and tell you that this book necessarily holds up well in 2020. At times, it’s both racist and sexist. Though Randy is considered a “progressive” in his rural township, in the context of Alas, Babylon, that just means that he considers Black people to be humans, ranking slightly above women. I do not have a hard time putting these things into context, for the day they were written, but I could certainly understand if they weren’t someone else’s cup of tea, so consider that a trigger warning of sorts.
Aside from the above, Alas, Babylon is a great read. Where many modern post-apocalyptic media leans too heavily on clichés and tropes of the genre, such as the diabetic and the prepper uncle, this one stars a protagonist who has very little warning of the coming blast and actually regretted some of the preparations he forgets. Since many of the men are recent veterans of the 1950s, their survival instincts are far more organic than that of Rick Grimes. The struggles they face are ones few would consider today, such as a lack of salt and their solutions are clever, without reaching. Jake hates when I read this stuff, because I always want to order bugout bags and that backpack you can put your cat in for travel, but if I could find more titles like Alas, Babylon, I’d devour them. I give Alas, Babylon 4 stars.
13. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley ⭐⭐⭐
I think I mentioned, in my last post of reviews, that 2020 was the wrong year to read a bunch of weird political dystopian novels, but I must say, Brave New World was probably my favorite of the genre, due to it having so many parallels to modern day society, while still managing to be delightfully bizarre.
The book begins with world building, as we see different classes of society being conditioned from birth to appreciate their lot in life, from babies being trained to fear sunshine and flowers to older children learning acceptance and docility through “sleep learning.” These things are a stretch for modern civilization, but Huxley then goes on to describe a society that encourages children to experiment with one another sexually and derides adults who practice any sort of monogamy, including playing favorites with one of their many lovers. The concept of parenthood and pregnancy are ones of shame and disgust, as are aging and religion and it is the societal norm to dose oneself with Soma to rid the mind of all negative thoughts and emotions.
Upon threat of being sent to Iceland for his vocal criticisms of World State, our protagonist Bernard takes a trip with his favorite gal, Lenina, to visit the “savages” on a New Mexico reservation. There, they feel disgust for all they see as these people value religion and actually repair their clothing (shudder). It’s here that Bernard and Lenina discover a woman from their own society, who was abandoned years ago and committed the disgusting and shameful crime of birthing a child. They return to London with her and her now-grown “savage” son in tow and all hell breaks loose.
I read Brave New World in college and it remains my favorite dystopian novel. Both U.S. political parties like to compare the other to 1984, but I find that to be much more far-fetched than the general societal norms of Aldous Huxley’s world of mandatory promiscuity, waste, and assumed drug use. Meanwhile, there are just enough weird quirks, like the engineered classes of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons to keep this book firmly in science fiction territory, as opposed to relegating it to the more political fiction of Orwell or the symbolic story of We. I give Brave New World three out of five stars.
At the beginning of this year, I set a lofty new year’s resolution, as I tend to do. Last year’s resolution was to finish 52 books, in an effort to end my habit of beginning seven and maybe finishing two. I accomplished that goal… barely. I literally finished listening to Little Women on New Year’s Eve, at double speed, but I did it. So, this year, I decided to take it up a notch. Not only would I read at least 52 books, half of them would inarguably be titles of substance, meaning not werewolf/mafia/motorcycle club/time travel/alien romance novels. Since my library teens still have to read classics for school and my one and only act of rebellion in high school was to put more effort into not completing assigned reading, than it would have taken to actually read the books themselves, I decided that all 26 books would be classics. It seemed an overly ambitious way to make myself better at my job, of course, but then a pandemic hit, freeing up an awful lot of time for me to read 26 classics, so you don’t have to…
Dracula, by Bram Stoker ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Dracula was my first classic of the year and, if I’m honest, I was dreading my entire project at this point and wasn’t enthusiastic about a book that is essentially a compilation of diary entries and letters. I don’t even like graphic novels, because the writing style takes me out of the story. Fortunately, however, I was able to download the audio for free, from work, and that completely removed the distraction. While I was confused, at times, as to why something was being shared, I did find that all of the pieces ultimately lined up into a genuinely scary tale. Jonathan Harker looking out his window to see Dracula climbing the side of the castle was quite possibly one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. It was refreshing to experience horror without gore or smut, despite the many trashy movie adaptations, with all their genitalia. I give Dracula five stars and it’s easily one of my favorite books, now.
2. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’ve never loved stories told through weird mediums, like court documents or interviews. It’s done in non-fiction for transparency and in fiction, to better resemble non-fiction, but I don’t enjoy either. I find it really difficult to get into a story, if I’m still putting together the puzzle while reading. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I feel like that’s the author’s job, before publication. That being said, it’s ironic that my first titles, of such a lofty goal, were both written in this style.
When I started In Cold Blood, I assumed it would be dry, as was the way of most non-fiction of the time. I had also had dental surgery just a few days before, so I was high as a kite when Jake came home for lunch and found me sitting on the couch, crying.
Jake: “What’s wrong?” Me: “Nothing.” Jake: “That’s not true. You’re crying.” Me: “They were just all so scared! Even the dog was scared and then all of his owners died and it doesn’t even say what happened to him!”
While I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on hydrocodone, I can attest to it being not only engaging, but truly disturbing, as you’re made to empathize with two vicious murderers. In fact, only after I’d finished this title, did I discover that Truman Capote was actually somewhat obsessed with the killer, Perry Smith. Some speculated that he held romantic feelings for him, while others theorized that he saw himself in the man. That’s… even more disturbing, so kudos to Capote for taking it to the next level. Simply for the slow pacing that is unavoidable in most non-ficion, I give In Cold Blood four stars.
3. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding ⭐⭐
Lord of the Flies has always sounded fascinating to me. Just the concept of an utter breakdown of society amongst young boys, who aren’t as strictly indoctrinated into social constructs of acceptable behavior, sounded thrilling and I never understood why all of the teens I worked with hated it. Color me surprised when I, too, wasdriven far more insane than the main characters, by my complete and utter boredom.
Y’all, nothing happened throughout most of this book. The first 10% of the story revolved around establishing a rudimentary society of gentlemanly norms, while the next 80% depicted the destruction of said norms, and the last 10% revealed the consequences. The beginning of the story was interesting, as young boys scrambled to build a way of life and a hierarchy that closely resembled the only one they knew. About 10% out of the next 80% was engaging, as the carefully constructed society devolved, while the other 70% was largely internal monologue. The final 10% woke me up, with an exciting chase scene and a surprising twist. Despite the rousing ending, however, over 2/3 of this book was simply filler and a failed attempt at suspense. While I enjoyed the concept, the execution left me wanting… three more stars. Two disappointed stars for Lord of the Flies.
4. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck ⭐⭐⭐⭐
If I were hard-pressed to name a favorite author, who doesn’t turn out cozy and predicable romances, it would be John Steinbeck. I understand that people dislike him for being too descriptive, but unlike certain contemporary authors (here’s looking at you Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King), Steinbeck is actually good at it. Like Tolkein, Steinbeck isn’t wordy, because he’s in love with himself, but in love with the world he’s creating, specifically his characters. Can that be tedious, regardless of his motivations? Sure, but I love good characterization so much, I find I don’t mind. Of Mice and Men, however, hit a sweet spot, managing to have deep characters, despite its novella length.
When I told friends that I was reading this story, many of them shared that the ending made them cry. Judging by reviews online, that was Steinbeck’s intent, as he painted a rather dated picture of the plight of Lennie, a man who was likely on the autism spectrum. In 2020, however, I felt little for Lennie and all sympathy went to George, because I know several people on the spectrum… and zero of them are psychotic. I know, I know, he was a big guy, who didn’t realize his own strength, and was misunderstood. That’s the story described by George, anyway, as he recounts all the jobs and plans that haven’t worked out and all the times he had to take Lennie and run, because George is the real MVP. His life could’ve been so much simpler, were he to have Lennie committed to some sort of home, but he was loyal and acted as his protector, through all of his mishaps… until the very end.
I realize that Steinbeck meant for Lennie’s final actions to be an accident, a tragedy beyond his control, but I don’t accept that, with the understanding we have for special needs people, today. I’ve met too many of them, in my line of work, to believe that murder is such a small step, regardless of strength. Lennie had severe anger issues and was truly dangerous. He got what was coming to him. My heart went out only to George, in the final scene, as he bestowed such heartbreaking mercy on his lifelong friend. I give four stars to Of Mice and Men, despite feeling very differently about the characters than basically all of mankind.
5. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I admit it. There was a month, where I Googled the shortest classics, so I could more easily accomplish my goal and Metamorphosis was one of them. Unlike most of the titles I’ve chosen this year, Metamorphosis is a symbolic, artistic piece and I loathe that stuff. As a teen librarian, I spend all of April, National Poetry Month, ranting about how poetry is stupid. I’ve been known to declare that it’s not art, if I can do it. I’m simply too direct for metaphors and beautiful prose, so I figured an art piece wouldn’t be my jam and researched what it was supposed to be about, before reading. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Knowing that Kafka intended this novella as an allegory for his relationship with his father, painted a portrait that was both haunting and heartbreaking. Even Kafka’s mother and sister apparently had their limits on their affection for their source of income. He was a meal ticket and when he wasn’t that, he was an insect. Four painful stars.
6. We, by Yevgeny Zamyat ⭐⭐⭐
This might not have been the year to read a bunch of disturbing political classics, now that I sit here in terror, sporting my foil hat, beneath my bare lightbulb; but I’m a sucker for classic dystopian and I’ve always wanted to read the source material on which virtually all of them were based. We tells the story of One State, a supposed utopian society made of steel and glass, removing any and all sense of privacy from a totalitarian state. There are no individuals, only parts of the whole, as is reflected in the one and only pronoun: we. The only delineator for each of these parts is a letter/number combination, as we see in the spacecraft engineer, D-503. Society’s laws and rules are based entirely on mathematic formulas and emotions and dreams are considered a sickness, of which the consequence is death.
Y’all, I think one of the reasons I love these books so much, is that they’re all so very bleak.No one gets a happy ending in a world of government corruption, far surpassing anything we could imagine in our modern society. In this regard, We is no different than the books it inspired and I quite enjoyed the overall plot, as D-503 rebelled against his beloved One State, with the help of a beautiful woman, I-330, in a tale as old as time. Much like Eve, I-330 offered D-503 the curse of knowledge, inducting him into Mephi, an organization plotting to overthrow One State, despite the risk that they could both be destroyed by the Benefactor’s Machine. I won’t ruin the ending for you, since no one has actually heard of this book and I genuinely enjoyed the story, but I can attest to it being a somewhat confusing read.
Perhaps because it was translated from Russian or due to the fact that it’s literally 100 years old, We wasn’t a leisurely read. Much of the story is told in prose and imagery, to the point that the reader is not always entirely sure what’s happening and what’s metaphorical, a disruption only compounded by the use of invented terminology, along with words that have simply fallen out of fashion in the last century. There was some definite rereading required and that made for a tedious experience. I’d ultimately recommend the book, but it’s by no means light. The juice is still worth the squeeze, however and I give We three stars.
7. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I tried and failed to read this book about 10 years ago, when I was going through my divorce, and that was probably for the best, because this is not a book to read when you’re already depressed. Flowers for Algernon was another title that was told entirely through first person journal entries and medical reports, so I’m thrilled that I spent the last couple of years training my brain to comprehend audiobooks. People often judge the quality of an audiobook by the reader, but unless it’s either really good or really bad, I rarely care. The narrator for Flowers for Algernon, however, was fantastic. As the book progresses and simple-minded Charlie Gordon undergoes the same procedure as test subject mouse, Algernon, the narrator becomes noticeably, but gradually, more articulate. As Charlie surpasses his colleagues, his voice becomes more arrogant, espousing scientific jargon and passing judgement on everyone around him. As he sees Algernon failing and his own mind begins to degrade, he sounds frantic with terror and humiliation. This is a good book, but an excellent audiobook and quite possibly one of the few that left me near tears… at least without a dog dying. Five devastating stars.
Right now, I have a firm grasp on positivity… which of course means that later, I’ll have a firm grasp on a bottle of whiskey. My highs are really high and my lows are really low. I half-ass nothing.
So, in my latest up moment, I’ve been considering all the ways that I’m at an advantage during this pandemic, either by good decisions I’ve made that have ultimately prepared me for disaster, or the more likely scenario of pure chance. I’m a firm believer that where liberals tend to underestimate the role of moxy and self-determination, conservatives tend to underestimate the role of luck. So here’s a mix of both.
We’re used to eating at home.
Zetus lapetus, I don’t know how you people eat out all the time. Jake and I split a McDonald’s burger and fries (no drink) to celebrate Easter, since it was already the lamest holiday ever and it cost $7.26. That’s why we never eat out and y’all are crazy. Fortunately for us, this means we’ve got quite the cache of recipes, because we’re used to cooking. We’re not eating pasta night after night, but instead we’re eating soups, stew, salmon, enchiladas, salads, burgers, garlic green beans, battered fish, fries and tots, coconut haystacks, chocolate chip cookies, cake mix cookies… We’ve developed a lengthy menu over the years. Since we come home for lunch, that includes lunches. We are not scrambling for meal planning ideas.
I’ve been cutting our hair for years.
Zetus lapetus, I don’t know how you people get your hair cut all the time. A few years ago, I decided I wanted bangs, but I knew they’d need more upkeep than my twice annual haircut, so I bought some hair sheers on Amazon for $15 and started doing it myself, with tips from YouTube. A year ago, Jake asked me to cut his hair, so we could save the $20 every couple of months. For the cost of one of those haircuts, I bought a trimmer on Amazon and have been doing it ever since. Despite all salons being closed, there are no shaggy folks in the Granger household.
I own walking shoes and workout equipment.
I’ve had an elliptical for years and purchased my rowing machine about a month before the pandemic really hit. I also bought a good pair of walking shoes about six months ago and live in an older neighborhood with large lots and wide streets, so walks are a great way to get out of the house.
We don’t have kids. We want to do the baby thing soon, but we haven’t gotten around to it just yet and I’ve gotta say, what a time to be childless. I cannot imagine going through the highs and lows I hit in one day with small children in tow. I miss my job and the days feel long and meaningless, while I’m constantly terrified that I’ll get news that there won’t be any paychecks after a certain date. I can’t sleep, because I wake up and remember we’re in the middle of the apocalypse. It’s exhausting and I’m so glad I’m not solely responsible for another human’s health and well-being at this very moment of my life.
We have stable(ish) jobs.
They’re furloughing nurses and doctors in my state, during a pandemic. No job is 100% safe. Jake and I, however, have been lucky enough to keep our jobs and pay thus far. While I’m home, I am doing three remote programs a week with my homeschool kids, to justify that pay and none of my managers seem worried that we’ll lose it, let alone our jobs. Jake is essential, if people want to continue getting water in their homes, and he goes to work every day, as per usual.
I have a contingency plan.
If the bottom falls out, I just passed my school media certification test to add another subject area to my teaching certificate, which I’ve kept going all these years. They will always need teachers and I can always teach… even if that means eventually relocating to Jake’s home state, where teachers are better compensated.
We already bought a house.
Realizing that Cherokee property values were soaring and recognizing that if we waited to buy until we had a 20% down payment, we’d price ourselves out of the market, we purchased our 2,300 square foot, 1980’s flip on over an acre, for $210,000 with 5% down in 2018. Since I have no idea what Covid-19 is going to do to the housing market or mortgages as a whole, I’m really glad we’ve already bought a home that we plan to stay in for at least the next 15 years.
I just refinanced that house.
Literally, two weeks after the lock down, we signed the paperwork on a lower fixed interest rate and a lower monthly payment, which stated that we’d already earned 10% equity. We won’t have to make a mortgage payment until June and can use those payments to secure our financial position.
We’ve paid off a lot of debt and are now nearing an ideal financial situation.
I married a man with a nest egg and that is pure luck. Do any of y’all remember my rants about Fifty Shades of Grey and how I’d let a man hang me upside down and gut me like a deer if he’d only pay off my student loans? That happened!
Not that part… the part about the student loans. While I still owe on my federal student loans, they’re on an income based repayment program that only counts my income and comes out to about $220 a month, while the remainder is due for public service student loan forgiveness in 2024. My private student loans, however, were killing us. We were paying $300 a month just to keep the phone calls at bay, because we weren’t even touching the principal… that is, until my romantic hero swept in and paid them all off, along with my car and credit card, ultimately lowering our overhead by quite a bit. We’ve also paid off multiple credit cards since then and managed to secure a car payment of about $200 per month, while maintaining a sizable emergency fund.
I like my husband… and for some reason, he likes me. I’ve seen a lot of memes and articles citing the stress that this pandemic is putting on marriages. Maybe it’s because Jake is still going to work each day or because we have a lot of space to offer each other, but I just don’t feel that way. I have thought a hundred times how much worse this pandemic would be if I were single. I could barely handle getting iced in all alone during Southern snowstorms in my twenties, and those only lasted a few days. I would go crazy with no one but my pets, sitting around 24/7 reading articles about the end times.
During Armageddon, Jake gives me a reason to be in a good mood, to be sober, to keep a clean house, to make healthy meals, as opposed to my famous single girl dining experience of Lotso Snack Foods. Marshmallows and maraschino cherries for dinner anyone? Jake provides comfort and company and someone to share sad McDonald’s burgers as we celebrate Isolation Holidays with video games and drinking. For some reason, he’s grateful to have me around too and I’m beginning to think that’s it’s just his provider instincts. When crisis hits, he needs something to take care of… enter me.
Three weeks ago, I got the news that my library would be closing for two weeks, in the face of Covid-19. One week ago, I got the news that my library would be closing for two more weeks. Last Thursday… I think, the days are beginning to run together… I got the news that my library would be closed for the month of April.
Text to My Boss: Can we just stage a coup and go back anyway? Open the library, welcome people inside. I’m tired of being a part of the solution. Let’s be part of the problem.
In that first week, I posted an adorably ambitious list of pandemic goals. In hindsight, I now realize, of course, that this is the equivalent to a Google search for the most popular New Year’s resolutions. So I’m here to revise…
Goal 1: Do Everything I Can to Keep My Job
I am being paid, in full, while still accruing leave. I have a paycheck and health insurance through the end of the month, guaranteed. None of my managers are concerned about our jobs. We have a very secure funding model, similar to that of teachers. That being said, my state is on the list of potentials for the next Covid-19 hot spot and the president is about to advise that everyone wear masks in public. I bought gas for .99 cents a gallon yesterday. Sam’s Club doesn’t have meat. It’s the apocalypse, yo. Anyone who thinks their job is totally secure isn’t paying attention.
There aren’t a lot of ways to librarian from home, folks. I’m doing remote programming with my teens two days a week, listening to classics and reading YA novels, researching programming ideas for fall. I’m jumping at every chance for a video conference, internally and externally and planning to do some some software training on YouTube. I’m writing bi-weekly reports of all of my contributions and sending them in unsolicited. I’m obsessively checking my email, even though it’s been mostly crickets from management, all in the hopes that if this goes on long enough to require tough decisions, they’ll layoff anyone else.
Goal 2: Don’t Get Fat
Call me vain, I don’t care, but directly below keeping my job comes the goal of not getting fat in isolation. Y’all, I am literally holed up all day, with all of the food ever. There’s almost nothing I could want to eat, that I couldn’t eat. I have ice cream and cookies and Easter candy and fried chicken strips and frozen pizza and very little to do, beyond cry because the world is ending.
Forget yoga. Forget zumba. Forget healthy eating. Methodology no longer matters to me. If maintaining my weight means I walk around the neighborhood listening to audiobooks for two hours a day, so I can’t raid the fridge, so be it. What else am I going to do with my time? If it means drinking nothing but coffee until 1:00 in the afternoon, while doing an impression of Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka, fine. As long as they don’t have to roll me out of isolation, like Violet Beauregarde I’m happy.
Goal 3: Be Nice to My Husband
As essential personnel, my husband is still going to work every day. If anyone is going to get me sick, it’s him. If anyone is going to take care of me, it’s him. If anyone is going to keep me from feeling totally isolated, it’s him. It’s not his fault that I’m home, all day, theorizing that the evangelicals might be right and this could be the Rapture… at least beyond the point that he married me. He has to live in this incredibly stressful world, too… and he has to actually venture out into it. I don’t have to be the perfect housewife, but the least I can do is keep home pleasant.
Goal 4: Don’t Destroy the House
I am a homebody, y’all. I love my house. There’s no place I’d rather be… except maybe work these days. This house is 2,300 square feet, though, including the converted garage and it sits on over an acre. If not properly cared for, that becomes a huge chore. So, while Jake takes care of the lawn, it is my goal to keep our home comfortable… since we’re possibly going to die in it.
Goal 5: Don’t Destroy the Pets
Jake deserves 100% of the credit for the fact that our pets are not insufferable. He has trained them quite well, not to beg or get on the furniture without permission. They’re not allowed in the kitchen when we’re in there and they’re just generally much nicer to be around than many other people’s pets. Thackery Binx will meow at me first thing in the morning, because he wants me to hurry up and sit down with my coffee, so I can snuggle him. He seems to understand, however, that these snuggles have a time limit, because I have to go to work… until now. Now, I am home 100% of the time, to respond to everyone’s every whim, so I’m making it a goal to be slightly more emotionless, so as not to utterly destroy my pets in the time I’m home, however long that may be.
Goal 6: Don’t Spend Money
Times are simply too uncertain for retail therapy. Jake and I were quite fortunate to have started a refinance on our home six weeks ago, and to have finalized it just Wednesday, which means we’ve saved $300 on our mortgage and now have a 3.375% interest rate. We actually had to send in our most recent pay stubs, again, just to prove we still had jobs, the day before we signed, though. The economy has tanked and while I do still have my teaching certificate, because I love contingency plans, we don’t know what the future holds. So, spending less money is important right now. The mortgage payments we don’t have to make, the stimulus checks that are on their way, the extra paychecks we’re expecting in a few months… these are all going to securing our financial future, so that if things get bad, they’re not as bad.
Goal 7: Read Books
I have no more goals about what I should read, simply that I should read something that isn’t the news. It can be a romance novel I’ve read three times, as long as it’s not staring at a screen, crying over the end times. It probably shouldn’t be the next Left Behind novel or anything else that’s actually about the end times, but I’m not going to be that specific in my parameters.
So there we have it, my minimalist, realistic goals. If I can make it through this apocalypse employed, human sized, married, with a home and pets that don’t suck, without wasting all of the money we’ve saved, and without driving myself crazy by reading about Armageddon all day, I will be in a better place than most. They aren’t stimulating goals, but they’re goals all the same.