Sunday, November 24, 2013

YA book recommendations by my daughter (for ages 11 and up)

I asked my daughter, who is 11, what she has read this year that she would happily recommend to other kids her age and older. She has given brief summaries for many of the books. They are in no particular order but her top 5 picks are starred.

* Wendy Mass, A Mango-Shaped Space (about a girl with synethesia who learns to accept and embrace her ability)

Wendy Mass, 11 Birthdays (a series of 4 books, all connected, set in the real world but involving magic & time travel)

Holly Goldberg Sloan, counting by 7s (a girl who thinks very mathematically, is quirky and different, and whose life changes very suddenly)

Ashley Elston, The Rules for Disappearing (a girl who has to live a completely fake life but she has no idea why. She thinks it has something to do with her father. Every few months her family has to move to a completely location and change their identity. Spooky and haunting)

Rebecca Stead, When you reach me 

Laurel Snyder, Bigger than a bread box

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs 

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again (winner of the YA National Book Award, about a Vietnamese refugee who flees to America)

Joan Bauer, Almost Home (homelessness, foster care, and writing to get through it all)

* Sharon M. Draper, Out of My Mind (about very intelligent girl who is wheelchair bound and cannot communicate and what happens after she gets a machine that can speak for her)

R. J. Palacio, Wonder

Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone (an English girl's family visits America to help find her father's old friend who has disappeared after the car crash that killed his son)

John Green, The Fault in Our Stars 

Cynthia Lord, Rules (a girl with an autistic brother who struggles with just wanting to fit in)

* Paula J. Freedman, My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

Cathy Cassidy, Indigo Blue

Cathy Cassidy, Scarlett (and many others, all read from the bookshelf of vacation home)

Grace Lin, Dumpling Days

Phoebe Stone, The Romeo and Juliet Code (a girl from England who is sent to America to live with her mysterious aunts and uncles. There is a big secret in their house hiding behind a door)

Patricia Reilly Giff, Pictures of Hollis Woods (a child in foster care, her carer is an artist who is getting dementia. She must keep this secret or risk being taken away from her)

Sarah Weeks, So B. It

Natasha Farrant, After Iris (after a girl's twin sister dies her family falls apart)

Anne Frank, Diary of Anne Frank

* Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes

* Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (warning: very scary, nightmare inducing in fact)

Carol Antoinette Peacock, Red Thread Sisters (about two girls who grow up in an orphanage in rural China. One is adopted at age 11 by a wealthy American family. She tries to find a family for the other girl who has a disability)

Jackie French, Nanberry: Black Brother White (this is a tough read but recommended. It is about an Australian Aboriginal boy during the period of the first invaders. There has been an outbreak of smallpox and almost all his people have died. He is taken into custody by a surgeon who is actually quite kind hearted compared to the other officials)

Three books on her wish list:

Melanie Crowder, Parched

Lindsay Eland, A Summer of Sundays

Regina Sirois, On Little Wings

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I watch through the glass in our front door. A small child with a woman who I rightly guess is her nana are crouched down low, intently studying our garden.

I step outside and say hello. The woman tells me that her grand-daughter is fascinated by our garden gnomes. This makes me smile.

Australian? I ask, picking up on her accent.


I wait for her to say You too. And wait.

So am I. I'm Australian too.

Oh, she says. You've picked up the American twang.

I laugh and we keep talking. She is visiting from Sydney, originally from South Africa.

It is happening more and more. The blank look when I say "Australian?", as if I'm just another busy body American playing pick the accent. I am no longer instantly recognisable as one of their own.

My sister calls. She asks if I have started buying Christmas presents. Not yet I say. We still have Thanksgiving to get through.

My life has taken on a different rhythm. American seasons and celebrations shape our days. Summer no longer means the long hot Christmas break. And for all intents and purposes the year ends in June rather than December.

My 3rd grader has been studying the Ohlone Native American tribe. He wants to know if maybe we have a grandfather or great-grandfather who was Ohlone.

No, I say. We are Australian so that wouldn't really be possible.

But I'm American, he fires back. And it's true. He is.

We all are. When we pass through customs we line up in the citizens queue. At both ends. I just have to remember to pull out the right passports.

And when the wheels touch down - in Sydney or San Francisco - I experience that sense of relief that comes from knowing that, finally, we have arrived home.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Books and writing: Alexander McCall Smith

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Alexander McCall Smith (AMS) in person, quite possibly the world's most prolific author, living or dead.

AMS began by launching into a long story about the Really Terrible Orchestra, which he founded with his wife for those of us who cannot play our instruments. He says that he does not actually play the bassoon, but rather plays part of the bassoon, the part that does not include the very difficult high notes. And when performing with his orchestra he simply stops when the music gets too difficult and waits for the "more accessible" portions of the score.

He quite accurately reports that we all actually learned the clarinet at some point in our childhoods (I did!), something that is often unearthed in psychotherapy sessions as "Suppressed Clarinet Memories". And he recommends that when starting our own Really Terrible Orchestra we seek out a conductor who is currently before the courts and will accept the role of conductor as a sort of plea bargain deal so as to avoid jail time.

The man is a freak among writers, putting out around five books a year, each taking him a couple of months. He does not plot or plan but simply sits and writes, saying it all emerges from his subconscious. And while he makes it sound easy, we should note that the man works from 4 till 7am most mornings, followed by a nap, and then more writing. He reports that he writes 1000 words per hour.

AMS advises writers that they must get the first line right, then goes on to say this is because it is likely to be the only one that is actually read, especially by critics who have the power to write 3,000 word reviews based upon this first sentence.

His most well-known series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, started as a short story which then became a novel about a woman in Botswana - Precious Ramotswe - starting a small business on the death of her father. He is now up to the 15th book in the series - putting out a new one each year -  and has no intention of stopping until he himself "stops".

AMS's affection for Botswana, and his regard for the values that define this nation, are genuine. He says the response to the books in Botswana has mostly been positive, but there are of course critics who complain he does not address the serious problems the country faces. And while he acknowledges that these problems are real, he is unapologetic in choosing to focus his energy on the positive, which for him include the fact that the country has been consistently democratic since gaining independence in 1966 and has chosen to keep the profits gained from the diamond industry in public hands.

AMS regularly has "conversations with his characters" and with five (or is it six?) different series on the go - a book a year for each I believe - it is quite something that he manages to juggle so many characters and plot lines.

Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series - the boy who remained 6 for 8 years and is my personal favourite - is the character he gets asked about most often by audiences who often wish that Precious Ramotswe or Isabel Dalhousie, the Edinburgh ethicist, might swoop in and save him from his mother Irene. As a mother of another saxophone playing son - although not one who attended a Very Advanced Kindergarten or is involved in psychotherapy - I do wonder if I might be placed by AMS in the same basket as Irene who represents the modern plague of the "Very Pushy Mothers". (Yes, he does raise my feminist hackles on this point).

This man is no tortured artist. AMS cracked himself up frequently during his talk, and not more so than reporting on the poor Community College student who asked him the most serious of questions "Do you suffer?" to which he responded "No, I don't. I'm quite content actually."

AMS is currently working on a modern day version of Jane Austen's Emma, which he says has been the most tremendous fun to write. And it is that sense of fun, the joy that he conveys in person and on the page, that makes me predict that it will no doubt be a pleasure to read.

As the organisers of the appearance attempted to draw the event to a close, calling for just one more question, AMS insisted there be at least two more. One suspects that this lovely, slightly rumpled, kilt wearing man enjoys these appearances at least as much as his devoted audience.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Does lean in have anything to offer those we lean on?

In an article in the New York Times Style Section, ‘Page by Page, Men Are Stepping Into the Circle’, Hannah Seligson highlights the degree to which men in corporate America have embraced Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and accompanying ‘movement’.

You have to ponder how transformative a movement Lean In can be when it has been so readily embraced by men – and not just any old men but men at the top of the corporate chain - let alone corporate America. Corporations can choose to ‘partner’ with Lean In, and ironically (or tellingly) the organization does not discriminate against companies whose corporate record on women is less than stellar.

Almost in passing Seligson makes the following observation

“some men say they are drawn into the book not because of gender or work-life balance issues, but because it is a playbook on how to get ahead".

I find this both fascinating and a little disturbing. Should Lean In be shelved under self-help rather than feminism? And if it is so unthreatening to not only men but also corporate America, whose mission is profit at any cost rather than equality, what should feminists make of it?

In dressing up feminism in a corporate suit, does Sandberg's 'movement' make corporate America more feminist or has it instead made feminism more corporate? Have the aims of feminism effectively been co-opted by Lean In, its goals so compatible with corporate interests that rather than serving women, it represents feminism in the service of corporations and capitalism itself?

Does Lean In have anything at all to offer the low paid female workers – predominantly women of color and immigrants - who privileged women(and men) Lean On so that they can get ahead? Just how much more leaning in can women do who are often working multiple jobs and still living at or below the poverty line?

Even on her own terms, within the world of corporate America, does Sandberg do anything to challenge patriarchal notions of leadership? Part of her spiel at public events is to ask women “How many of you were called bossy growing up?” Predictably, many women will raise their hands. And those who do are told to celebrate this trait, because after all it is the bossy among us who are born to be leaders.

For me, this exercise demonstrates the failure of Lean In to challenge patriarchy, perpetuating the myth that traits associated with traditional masculinity are the same ones that we should be looking for in leaders. What if Lean In questioned this narrative, promoting a different vision of what makes a good leader, recognizing that the most effective leaders are not the classic ‘bossy’ kids but instead the cooperative and collaborative child who knows how to bring out the best in those around them.

Sandberg’s limited vision for feminism is not necessarily harmful; it might even see more women being promoted into positions that should always have been theirs. And that is undeniably a good thing. But the attention her book, and ‘movement’ have achieved are not because what she has to say is transformative or radical, but because it is the easiest to digest version of feminism, demanding very little of men as a class and doing nothing to address the interests of women outside those who are already the most privileged among us.

By selling feminism as a win-win for both men and women, all the while virtually ignoring issues of class and race, Sandberg underplays (or ignores) the reality that those who benefit from privilege do not give up that privilege in meaningful ways without a fight. Men benefit, as a class and individually, from patriarchy and while dismantling patriarchy absolutely benefits men and women, actual gender equality will mean that men have to give up much in order for women to gain.

This less feel good reality is why feminist gains are met every step of the way with backlash, and why Lean In’s feel good circles (positive stories only please) are no substitute for sustained political action.

It is trade unions and organized political movements that will bring about the sort of structural reforms that will benefit women as a class, rather than simply a very privileged class of women.

Basics like paid parental leave, sick leave, access to health care, quality affordable child care, reforms to immigration policy, and a living wage are but some of the issues that feminists seeking to use their privilege for more than their own gain will organize around. 

Is it a good thing that the most prominent face of feminism - or at least the one that has been embraced by the mainstream western press - is one that presents feminism as being so unthreatening, so completely in sync with the values of corporate America, that has CEOs falling over themselves to be part of the Lean In brand? 

At the end of the day, I am not interested in a strand of feminism that has nothing to say to women outside a very small and privileged orbit. And it is not that I think that the issues facing women in the corporate world are not worthy of feminist interest or action, but when this is the beginning and end of your feminism then it is not something I can identify with.