Saturday, December 29, 2012

book talk: some of what I read and enjoyed in 2012

A random list of books is about all I have offer at this time of the year. It seems my writer's well has run dry, my ability to focus is shot, and so instead of pushing out a half-hearted post I will offer some of my favourite book and author finds of 2012. I have * books I read on my e-reader.

Short stories

Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder and Other Stories* (The goddess, say no more)
Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank* (Worth buying for the title story alone; the stories in this book have stayed with me.) (I heard this repeat of an  interview between Englander and my favourite radio host, Michael Krasny, yesterday. Worth a listen if you want to know more about this author and his really interesting insights into short story writing, Israel and more)
Alice Munro, Dear Life (Sublime, last 4 stories as close to autobiographical as Munro has gone)
Nancy Packer, Old Ladies (This is one of those books that will probably remain largely unheard of because of the subject matter - old ladies - but is completely brilliant and deserves acclaim and audience)
Anne Packer, Swim To Me (I blogged about this author here. I highly recommend all of her books but Swim To Me had special resonance as the stories were largely set in our part of the Bay Area)
Jean Thompson, Throw Like a Girl (She sees the extraordinary in the ordinary, writing sharply about suburban life and dysfunctional families. I will be going back for more)


Ayad Akhtar, American Dervish* (I read this after listening to the author interviewed on Fresh Air)
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending* (It won the 2011 Booker. I read it from start to finish on the return trip from Australia to the US last January and loved)
Anne EnrightThe Forgotten Waltz* (Irish author of Booker winning The Gathering. Highly recommend both and am looking forward to reading her observations on motherhood Making Babies: Stumbling into motherhood)
F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby (Finally, a classic!)
Anna Funder, All That I Am (Winner of the Australian 2012 Miles Franklin Award)
Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child (I bought this on impulse and couldn't put it down. Turns out it has been an international bestseller so I'm not the only one. A fairy tale for grown-ups set in Alaska)
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Booker shortlisted, the book I want everybody to run out and read. It is deeply moving and wise)
Deborah Levy, Swimming Home* (Booker shortlisted, short and brilliant thriller)
Chris Pavone, The Expats* (This was a bit of a romp. A must read for any expats, total page turner)
Tom Perotta, The Leftovers* (A post-apocalyptic world but nothing like The Road)
Kevin PowersThe Yellow Bird (Extraordinary novel about the Iraq war written by a veteran)
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (National Book Award winner, devastating story about one family in Hurricane Katrina)


Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (I loved this so much I blogged about it)
Virginia Lloyd, The Young Widow's Book of Home Improvement (Beautiful, sad, tender. It made me weep. It is a love story as much as a book about watching your partner die)
Salman RushdieJoseph Anton (Controversial twitter book club read which I loved despite it being too long and going a little overboard on the name dropping)


Marie Howe, What the living do (I thank NPR Fresh Air for introducing me to this extraordinary poet)

I am currently reading Mary Gordon's The Love Of My Youth and have Lily Tuck's I married you for happiness waiting in the wings (another impulse buy that I am confident was not a mistake).

The pile for 2013 is already sky high, some in paper form, some on my e-reader. I have set myself a goal for 2013 of a book a week or 52 books for the year. I would be thrilled if others want to join me in this quest. And please share your favourite books of 2012 in the comments.

Wishing you all safety, peace and happiness in 2013,

Michelle x

I just discovered I have been added to this list .. a wonderful project by the Large Hearted Boy blogger who has been collating the best of books lists for the past five years. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The America I Know

The America I know, the one that I arrived in for the first time at the age of 23, is not Fox news and Rush Limbaugh but NPR and Rachel Maddow; it is 'holiday' carols in an Episcopal Church filled with people of all faiths and none with a sign at the altar that reads "Everybody is welome here"; it is my daughter's elementary school teacher telling his class he has a husband not a wife without fear that this will cost him his job or the respect of his peers or parents; it is my son's middle school teachers sending home personal notes to each of their students in the summer break telling them how special they are; it is a kindergarten classroom where parents sit and read aloud to their children every single morning on the rug before saying goodbye.

The America I know is full of people whose earnestness sometimes makes me laugh. The lack of cynicism can at times seem naive and foolish - until you realise that their idealism is more often than not backed by concrete action that includes but often goes beyond simply writing a check.

The America I know is not perfect, but it is so very different from the America that the world sees. It is the reason I cringe a little when I see the world talking about Americans as if they are all gun crazed loons. These people and attitudes are as alien to me in Northern California as they are to a person sitting on the other side of the world.

The America I know is one that I often criticise fiercely for all the usual reasons; but at a time like this I think it is good to be reminded of the bright side of the American experiment; to recognise that in a land of optimistic idealists the forces of darkness that are eating away at this nation from the inside can be defeated. It will take courage, a leap of faith, a rejection of the cynical fear driven politics that the enemies of a peaceful and just society rely on to keep us in our place.

The America I know is not the America that the NRA represented at today's press conference.

The America I know is so much better than that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A different sort of drill: school safety post-Newtown

These days, school kids are used to drills. My own are regularly put through earthquake and fire drills. Get down low and go go go ... that sort of thing.

Today I heard that they will be learning some new skills in the coming months, a different type of drill that will no doubt be given a euphemistic name to avoid raising already elevated anxiety levels.

If a person were to attack the school with a semiautomatic weapon while the children were outside - at recess or lunch or PE - they will learn to run in random zig zag formations rather than straight lines. Apparently this is the best way to avoid bullets. I cannot fathom how any child will have the presence of mind to remember how to run, let alone breathe, in such circumstances.

Visitor passes will be strictly enforced, windows covered, doors locked from the inside, hiding places planned out in advance. Teachers will be trained to literally flip their classrooms, a reference to the making of barricades out of tables rather than the latest educational pedagogy.

Parents wondered if there were new technologies, perhaps an app (it is Silicon Valley), that could work as a more efficient warning system; security cameras were suggested, an idea that was knocked down with the chilling suggestion that these could be used by a perpetrator to better locate victims; and finally the idea of funding an actual security guard was raised.

I spoke. I tried to be calm but I wanted to scream "It's the guns, stupid".

I left the meeting shaken rather than reassured. While glad that our school district is taking these threats very seriously, all the while pointing out how unlikely such a tragedy is, post-Newtown the illusion of safety has been shattered.

We should all feel ashamed that it has taken the massacre of twenty children from what has been described as an idyllic town - read white and well off - to wake up. But now that we have woken up, now that there is real momentum, there is no turning back.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


I've spent two days tweeting nothing but my thoughts on guns. And I feel a bit embarrassed really, because I know it is getting old already. But then I glance at a newspaper and see the face of a mother running towards the school, the face of a mother who doesn't know if her child is dead or alive, and I don't have room in my head or my heart for anything else.

Victoria Soto, teacher, is dead. She was only twenty-seven. She took a bullet so that sixteen children could live. She is a fucking hero in the civil war that is being waged against Americans by the people who equate freedom with the right to own killing machines.

Twenty beautiful children, children who were still learning to read and tie their shoe laces, who still needed help opening their squeezy yoghurts and tupperware containers at morning tea time, who were still mastering the finer points of speech with a tendency to replace r's with w's and th's with f's, who were still scared that a monster lived under their beds ... those twenty children are gone forever.

An entire community is traumatised. A nation is mourning. A president is deciding whether he has the courage to take on the evil that is the NRA, a gun culture that is the nation's mental illness.

Four teachers are dead. A school principal is dead. A school psychologist is dead. Twenty children are dead. A mother is dead. And her son is dead.

There is nothing we can do to bring back the dead. There is no magic or prayer that can take away a grief as monstrous as having your child slaughtered by a man with a legally obtained killing machine.

We can't bring back the dead, but we can change the future. Starting now.

Call the White House 202-456-1111 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hug your children tight and then do something

This morning I volunteered in my son's Kindergarten classroom, helping the children glaze their clay gingerbread people. I watched with admiration as the teacher - who in my eyes walks on water - calmly dealt with multiple small crises and somehow got a roomful of energetic five and six-year-old's organised and ready to learn.

And then I returned home to my sick boy (he was home with his dad and the "coughers") to the news that is every American parent's worst nightmare. A 20-year-old man had slain, with a gun, twenty kindergarten children, and six others before killing himself. He did so while wearing a bullet proof vest and with a weapon that is legally available.

I have no words to make this better. Instead I recommend that we all channel our anger, grief, rage, despair and fight back. We need to beat the NRA at their own game, with both dollars and smarts.

To this end today I donated dollars to the Brady Center for Gun Control. Please consider making your own donation to this organisation or another group who is working for sane gun laws (and please share in the comments what other advocacy groups are out there).

I also called the White House (202-456-1111) and tearfully told the volunteer that I am a parent of a kindergarten child, that I was devastated by the news and I will no longer provide dollar support for the Democrats until they get very serious and specific about gun control, starting with the President. I will be conveying the same message to the Congressional campaign workers who call me weekly (or is it daily) asking for money.

Hug your children tight and offer up your prayers. But don't stop there.

Michelle x

Monday, December 10, 2012

Forty years later: "William wants a doll"

Today I heard Marlo Thomas interviewed on NPR (a lovely interview so worth clicking on the link) about her landmark song "William wants a doll" which was based on the 1972 book William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotov.

I showed my boys the Marlo Thomas clip tonight and it started some interesting conversations about bullying and sexism (a term my little guys are very familiar with). They watched it twice and my youngest couldn't stop humming the tune (which means I am going to have to buy the album!).

It is disheartening to fast forward 40 years and realise that while the world has definitely changed for the better in terms of gender equality and expectations, in the area of toys things have in fact gone backwards.

In most stores toys are rigidly divided along gender lines. When they are not actually separated into girls and boys aisles - which may be indicated by explicit signs or colour coding - the way toys are packaged often sends a not too subtle message about who a toy is intended for. And in no section of the toy department is this more true than the packaging and placement of dolls.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

rosanna and craig are getting married

I pass the laminated "Rosanna and Craig are getting married (parking this way)" sign every day on my way to and from school. It has been up for a few days now and I'm not sure if they are already married or perhaps the wedding is next weekend. Either way there is so much hope and joy in those words, even for one like me who eloped at the local courthouse.

On a Sunday, I often find myself getting a little choked up reading through the wedding notices in the New York Times. These aren't the notices that your parents paid for at a rate of $1 a line, found in the Births, Deaths and Marriages column, but full write ups with the back story to how a couple met and fall in love. The people chosen would rarely qualify as 'regular', usually being well known in the arts or politics or even medical fields. The paper now includes same sex couples as well as heterosexual, and mixed race and religion is par for the course.

Of course, what we don't get is a 'what happened next' column which would no doubt be even more interesting, if not nearly as pretty. This reminds me of the lovely book Happily Ever After by my friend Bension O'Reilly, which starts where the fairy tale generally ends.

The couples featured are rarely young and they have usually spent a good deal of time living together. This makes me more, not less, hopeful that these are unions that are likely to have some staying power. Then again, two of my high school girlfriends got married at twenty-one - straight out of university - and are still powering along twenty years later.

It is hard to know what the recipe for success is, or even how to define it. After all, a union ending does not equal failure. It could point to growth rather than stagnation in a relationship that is loveless or even unhealthy. In some instances, a celebration of divorce might be more appropriate than a celebration of marriage.

But still, I can't help it. When I read of the many and varied paths couples have taken to realising that they are (at least for now) the one, cynicism and snark are cast aside and I find myself cheering on the happy couple.

So. Rosanna and Craig, whether you got married last weekend or are embarking on your new life together this weekend, I raise my glass to you. And to all the other Rosanna and Craigs, Rosanna and Roxannes, and Craig and Christophers who will be 'marrying' in the coming months - with or without the stamp of approval of the state or family - I wish you well.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cut throat decorating: Christmas American style

I passed the woman with the giant hair and all in one purple pantsuit pushing the miniature dog dressed in a Santa suit with barely a blink. I had other things on my mind, namely getting my hands on the last light up Christmas snowman at my local big box store.

The thing is, Americans are just really good at decorating. And it is a wee bit contagious. If you don't join in you begin to feel like a bit of a Grinch. Or Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Seikh etc.

I didn't just buy the light up snowman. I also purchased the sweet little "Joy" sign, a dog Christmas stocking (yes, as designated by the manufacturer) and snowflake lights. I haven't finished. I now look at the trees in our front yard from a decorating rather than horticultural perspective. And god dammit I am out to impress.

I am going to make a pudding if it kills me (there is a reasonable chance that it will) and might even attempt a Christmas cake. I have my Christmas tree table cloth (it is totally tasteful, promise). The children's monogrammed stockings have been hung. And in the next few days we will visit a Christmas tree "farm" (corner lot) to select a live tree after chucking the plastic tree that we brought with us from Australia. That plastic tree just did not make the grade in the cut throat world of decorating American style.

This Christmas will be our first in our new home. Last year we traveled home, celebrating a traditional Australian hot Christmas with family. I have to find a way to take away that little bit empty feeling I get at these special times of the year, and decorating shall be my therapeutic drug of choice.

Some might call my efforts excessive, but compared to the neighbours they will no doubt be considered an exercise in minimalism.