Saturday, November 28, 2015

Race to the finish line: #52books52weeks

This is the first year since I started the #52weeks52books challenge that I am not confident I will make it over the finish line. With 16 books to be read in just over a month I am probably crazy to even consider the possibility that I can. And if I am to reach 52 I will need to be extremely selective in what I pick up - no impulsively picking up a doorstopper, fast reads only please.

I have achieved a lot this year outside of reading so this 'failure' is not really a failure, more a reflection of an increasingly busy life, other goals and meaningful (but time and head space consuming) activities. I have stuck with running, starting again in April with C25K for the umpteenth time and then going on to complete C10K (swapping out 10K for simply being able to run for an hour non-stop) and am now running three times per week for an hour. I am super pleased and proud of myself that I have pulled this off despite being frustrated with my slow pace.

My involvement in 'community' stuff has grown, my workload in this respect essentially doubling since last year. It is not that it takes up all my time, and it is nothing compared to a full or even part-time job, but it definitely takes up significant amounts of my free time and just as importantly head-space. When I am the the throes of planning an event or feeling particularly anxious about a plan that has gone awry (last week) then I really cannot focus on reading anything much longer than tweets and articles.

So, will I get to 52 books this year? I hope so. I hate not meeting a goal. At the same time, when I think about what this challenge is really about - devoting time to my very favorite past time in the 'age of distraction' from which I am just as vulnerable as anybody else - then I think I have succeeded. I have read many truly wonderful books and remain as excited as ever about reading.

I am looking forward to sharing my Top 10 (or so) books before the end of the year, including some that have received widespread acclaim and other more obscure titles. And today I am excited by the challenge that reading 16 books in one of the busiest months of the year presents.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On CEOs, privilege and the taking of parental leave

The news this week that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be taking two months paternity leave with the arrival of his daughter is positive. Of course, at a practical level it does not change a thing for the vast majority of American workers whose access to any form of parental leave (forget paid!) is extremely limited if it exists at all. On the other hand, by coming out so publicly with his decision Zuckerberg does send a message to workplaces and parents, particularly fathers, who do have access to leave that they should absolutely utilize it.

Zuckerberg's public statement adds weight to the public policy argument for extending paid parental leave to all American workers. On his Facebook page he says: "studies show that when working parents take time off to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families". Significantly, his statement very firmly centers the needs of the child rather than the more commonly cited "economic" benefits that are used to justify what should be a universal entitlement.

At the same time, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has stated that she will be taking a mere two weeks off after the birth of her identical twin girls, just as she did when her first child arrived shortly after she took over Yahoo.

In her role as a CEO, Mayer faces a degree of scrutiny and criticism that is not experienced by male CEOs at the best of times, let alone when pregnancy, childbirth and parenting decisions enter the mix. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a male CEO feeling the need to publicly outline his plans for the care of a newborn, which is in part what makes Zuckerberg's very public statement so refreshing.

In a sense (and somewhat ironically, given her extreme privilege), Mayer's "choice" - while not constrained by personal finances , access to affordable (even quality) childcare or the 1000 logistical considerations that working parents face - is constrained in a way that is not unfamiliar to female workers. They must prove themselves against a norm that presumes there is a wife available on the home front who will look after all aspects of bearing, birthing, feeding and care of any offspring produced during the course of a working life. Nowhere is that outdated norm stronger than in the upper echelons of corporate America.

Mayer - and more to the point female workers - cannot win until paid parental leave is available to all workers and the expectation and reality is that it is utilized without fear of reprisal, of subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination on return to work by both mothers and fathers.

So again, yay Mark Zuckerberg for taking a stand for the utilization of paid parental leave but lets remember that he is protected by the privilege that goes with being male, a privilege that is not available to any female worker, even one who has reached the level of CEO.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Paid Parental Leave: Going beyond the 'business case'

It is rare for a discussion of provision of Paid Parental Leave in the media to not start and finish with a focus on the "business case". And too often proponents of PPL adopt the language and logic of the marketplace in making their case, rather than shifting the debate to one that focuses on the rights and needs of children and those who care for them. 

The limits and dangers of the focus on the "business case" to justify provision of PPL can be seen clearly in the language that has been used to describe Netflix's newly adopted far-reaching PPL policy: a "perk" to retain its "highly valued" workers and to attract new talent in the highly competitive Silicon Valley marketplace. 

Netflix's new generous policy does not extend to its less valuable employees (more easily replaceable) in its DVD division. The "business case" does not take into account the needs of babies, which are consistently the same regardless of the value of their parents as employees. 

The human rights case for PPL focuses on the rights and needs of babies and those who birth and/or  care for them. Babies needs, their complete and utter dependency on their caregivers for survival, must be recognized, honored and met and this basic human right should in no way be determined by the value of their parents as workers in a marketplace.

Provision of universal PPL recognizes that those who carry, birth, breastfeed and care for babies and young children are performing important, necessary work. That work benefits not just an individual baby, their parents and family but the whole society and as such that caregiver should not have to shoulder the significant economic impact of that burden alone. 

The human rights case for universal PPL recognizes that caring work remains highly gendered, that failure to support and compensate those who care for babies and young children - to recognize this care as 'work' - perpetuates patriarchy, reinforcing the lower social and economic status of women as a class. 

Failure to adopt a universal PPL scheme means that we tacitly accept that only babies born to privileged parents should have the right to have their needs fully met; and that those who shoulder the burden of caring for societies most vulnerable should bear that burden alone. 

Just as we should not rely on the logic of the marketplace to support the case for PPL, we should not be satisfied with a situation where access to PPL is entirely dependent on a combination of the goodwill and fortunes of employers.

America needs to adopt a universal PPL as a matter of urgency and as one of the last countries in the world to do so it is in the fortunate position of having a wealth of models and experiences to look to when devising its own version. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

We've taking to correcting each other.

"You got the mult-I-grain bread" said my daughter.

I gasped. "Mult-I-grain. You said 'mult-I-grain. Its mult-eeee-grain."

We giggled. And she accused me of similar crimes.

"You sound so American when you talk to shopkeepers. I've really noticed this lately."

We are social creatures (even the engineers among us). We cannot help but mirror the speech patterns of those around us.

Yesterday, my husband said we needed 'to-may-to sauce'. Of course, if he was truly Americanized he would have said ketchup but this was enough for us to pounce.

"To-may-to" we said in a chorus. "We don't say to-may-to. Its to-maaaah-toe".

My kids still seek out the 'bubbler' when thirsty, a far more evocative word than the utilitarian sounding 'water fountain', but my youngest was recently mystified when I offered him an 'ice block' rather than a 'popsicle'.

This morning I watched my youngest checking himself out in the bathroom mirror, rearranging the strands of hair that fan his neck and face. And as he explained to me what he was doing it dawned on me the degree to which his accent has become Americanized.

He was surprisingly slow to pick up the American accent, given that children are the most susceptible. The fact that his accent has now shifted to the degree that it has is a marker of how far he has come since we arrived, from a shy 4-year-old to an 8-year-old who is spending the last few weeks of the endless summer break for the most part happily participating in that most American of institutions, Summer Camp.

My oldest son is the biggest corrector. He can't stand that his younger brothers sound so American, to the point that sometimes to our ears it sounds almost comic,  as if they are deliberately exaggerating the way they speak.

I lecture and berate him about not lecturing and berating them: "There is no right way of speaking. They live here, we live here. Their accents are going to change."

I don't mention the changes that have taken place in his own speech patterns, less noticeable but still distinct changes in his inflections that mark him out as an Australian who has been here for some time.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Year of Reading 2014 #52books52weeks

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Nathan Filer, Where the Moon Isn't
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Carol Anshaw, Carry the One
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Sarah McCoy, The Baker's Daughter
Emer Martin, Baby Zero
Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me
Anton Disclafani, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
Joel Dicker, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens
Bret Anthony Johnston, Remember Me Like This
J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Anthony Doer, All the Light We Cannot See
Yiyun Li, Kinder Than Solitude
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Good Squad
Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper
Lily King, Euphoria
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Lydia Millet, Mermaids in Paradise
Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
John Darnielle, Wolf in the White Van
Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase

Australian Fiction
Ashley Hay, The Railway Man's Wife
Evie Wyld, All the Birds Singing
Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows

Short stories and Novellas
Jamie Quatro, I want to show you more
Karen Russell, Sleep Donation
Francesca Marciano, The Other Language
George Saunders, Tenth of December
Alan Gurganus, Local Souls
Aimee Bender, The Colour Master
Amy Bloom, Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans
Edan Lepecki, If You're Not Yet Like Me
Lorie Moore, Bark

George Eliot, Middlemarch
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Benison O'Reilly and Kathryn Wicks, The Australian Autism Handbook
Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Innoculation
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

2014 was a great year for books. I discovered new writers - or at least writers who are new to me - that I plan to return to via their backlists and future releases (Amy Bloom, Molly Antopol, Edan Lepecki, Francesca Marciano, Michal Faber) and caught up on two brilliant books that have been sitting on my shelf for more than a few years (Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Good Squad and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall). I refused to read Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch until I had actually read George Eliot's Middlemarch even though Mead kindly reassured me (and no doubt countless others) on Twitter that familiarity with the classic was not a prerequisite.

I started the year with a rare detour into the world of sci-fi/fantasy with Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season and will be following up with the sequel in 2015; read my first ever graphic memoir,  Alison Bechdel's (creator of The Bechdel Test) Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic; and ended the year with a completely addictive work of Danish crime fiction by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase.

I love author talks and was lucky enough to attend quite a few in 2014: Amy Bloom, Molly Antopol, Rabih Alameddine, Francine Prose, Ruth Ozeki and Amy Tan.

My reading this year was pretty much evenly split between paper and e-books. I have a large pile of both awaiting me in 2015, including books I did not quite manage to finish in 2014. I am on a mission to start Margaret Atwood's Mad Adam trilogy, to complete at least two classics and to reach more often for books I already own.

Wishing you all a happy and fulfilling 2016,

Michelle x

Best Books 2014 #52books52weeks

I love reading the Best Books Lists that come out at the end of each year. Putting my own together is always difficult, and this year I made it that little bit harder by restricting myself to 10 works of fiction. All the books on this list are 2014 releases except Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, although I note (with excitement) he has a new book out now and a big back list.  See the sidebar or this post for a complete summary of my reading in 2014.


Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

Lily King, Euphoria

Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Rabih Alameddine, An Unecessary Woman

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Jenny Offill, The Dept. of Speculation

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing

Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White

Short stories:

Francesca Marciano, The Other Language

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans


Eula Biss, On Immunity

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Monday, August 4, 2014

29/52 Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing

It is no surprise that Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing won Australia's biggest literary prize, the 2014 Miles Franklin Award.

This is a novel with a distinctly Australian voice and feel,  reminding me in parts of another wonderful Australian novel, Romy Ash's Floundering.  

It is beautifully structured and plotted,  moving back and forth in time and place, leaving  the reader guessing until the very end. And that ending takes us all the way back to the beginning, revealing what exactly Jake has been running from.

It is a book that manages to be both brutal and beautiful, retaining an air of mystery and suspense while at the same time refusing to protect the reader for even a moment from the ugliness (and terror) that the protagonist lives through.