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. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BlogHer14: An Unapologetically Feminist Conference

In the same week that the hashtag #womenagainstfeminism was trending on Twitter, I attended the 10th annual BlogHer conference in San Jose, California. An unapologetically feminist affair attended by thousands of women and a handful of men, it is a conference that puts women's voices front and centre.

BlogHer co-founder, Elisa Camahort Page @ElisaC

A conference does not grow this large without sponsors and swag. For some (probably many) an event like this is primarily about building relationships with brands and learning how to best monetise online spaces. And for their part, companies are more than happy to co-opt the language of female empowerment to better sell their products.

Yet for all the fluff and commercialism - including a surprise appearance by a Kardashian at the HairFinity stand - the heart of this conference lay elsewhere.

One Kardashian does not erase a mainstage that included keynotes by author and blogging superstar Jenny Lawson (@TheBloggess), comedian Tig Notaro (who many of us discovered via her memorable appearances on NPR’s This American Life), HuffPo founder, author and in the words of her interviewer Guy Kawasaki “quote machine” Arianna Huffington, and the politically outspoken star of Scandal Kerry Washington.

Comedian Tig Notaro

Kerry Washington (left) being interviewed by Demetria Lucas @abelleinbk

One Kardashian does not erase the appearance of feared and revered Silicon Valley journalist Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) - whose line "Bossy has worked for me, Sheryl Sandberg" drew huge laughs and applause from the audience - interviewing Twitter's Melissa Barnes, that rarest of species, the female high tech executive.

Arianna Huffington being interviewed by Guy Kawasaki

And one Kardashian does not erase the importance of the decision to make the intersection of race, gender, feminism and the internet the focus of the closing keynote , a panel discussion led by and  featuring no less than six women of colour.

The closing keynote Intersectionality panel 

Intersectionality panellist @FeministaJones

Away from the mainstage, the breakout sessions on Digital Activism (led by fellow expat Australian Jo White @MediaMum) and the Future of Mom Blogging, were exceptional. To see the phenomenon of "Mom Blogging" discussed as a serious and potentially radical enterprise was a revelation and a relief. And the diversity of this panel - which saw a self-described white Jewish lesbian Dana Rudolph (@mombian) seated beside Natasha Taylor-Nicholes, an evangelical homeschooling and gay marriage accepting African American woman - to me drew attention to the way that conversations change and are enriched when 'other' voices are given a seat at the table. 

BlogHer is that rarest of opportunities, a chance for women to join together as a community, to celebrate friendships that are founded on shared values and interests rather than mere proximity (thanks to the talented Alexandra Rosas @GDRPempress for this insight during her inspired 10x10) and to move beyond the silos and echo chambers that our online - and for that matter – real lives often become, far more so than many of us would like to admit.  

At no point in the conference was this more apparent to me than during A’Driane Nieves reading of her Voices of the Year (VOTY) post, “America not here for us”. The reading shook the room, made many uncomfortable, and saw others give a standing ovation. For a few minutes those of us who have not experienced a lifetime of racism were asked to consider what it really means to be black in a country founded on slavery. 

I am now considered a BlogHer veteran, having attended the conference for three years running. In some ways I still feel like an outsider, and on most days an imposter. The fact that this feeling, of being an imposter, was raised multiple times by some of the most impressive women in the room is something I find both comforting and disturbing. One cannot imagine the same sentiment being expressed - let alone experienced - by men who have achieved at the same levels. 

Contrary to the sentiments expressed under the #womenagainstfeminism hashtag, we  do need feminism, and as feminists we desperately need and deserve that rare opportunity that BlogHer provides: to step out of our online spaces and spend real time in a forum where women's voices and experiences are given the space to be expressed, debated and treated with a level of gravitas that is too often missing in all the spheres in which we live out our lives.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Some thoughts on finishing C25K

I have been attempting to not just start, but actually finish, the C25K* program for the past 3 years. 

I spent roughly 5 months before beginning C25K walking at least 5 out of 7 days for 40 minutes. And I started C25K again on a bit of a whim after convincing my teen to do it with me. He got sick and dropped out and I decided to just keep going.

The smartest decision I made was to name the 3 days each week I would run and stick to it. So each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning I headed out no matter what. This approach left no room for "I don't feel like it today, I'll go tomorrow instead."

My biggest fear was, and remains, injury. My knees are not fantastic and I am carrying a lot of extra weight. I "ran" slowly, no heroics, so slowly that power walkers easily passed me. 

Rather than feeling defeated by my pace, by being passed by every other runner (and some walkers) on my route,  I have tried really hard to turn what could be a negative into inspiration. 

I am not a "natural" runner, but for some reason I really do love running.  The feeling of both achievement and well-being that settles over me at the end of each run more than makes up for the less happy feelings experienced while tackling a difficult stretch that I now refer to as Bastard Hill Rd.

I am disappointed that my son dropped out but thrilled my tween daughter is now more than halfway through C25K herself. She has attempted it before but never finished. She will make it this time and I am hoping will be my running partner for years to come.

Finishing C25K is not an ending but a beginning. For the next 6 months I plan to continue running for 30 minutes 3 times per week and adding in some weights work on my non-running days. And then I will be tackling C210K. 

* C25K is popular running app that is designed to get the 'couch potato' running continuously for 5km or 30 minutes in 8 weeks. I used the free app by Zen Labs and played my own music using Pandora.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Places we call home: watching the World Cup

We are a family that talks about politics in the same way many obsess over sports, so when watching the World Cup it is not so surprising that my youngest asks "Who should we 'vote' for?"

The earnest discussion that follows this question is all about finding the connections, however tenuous, between 'us' and the rest of the world.

When England plays Italy I say that we will 'vote' for Italy: "Dad's grandfather was from Sicily."

"But" interjects Mr9 "my best friend's Dad is from England".

This morning it is Croatia v Mexico. My heart is with Mexico, because I know that good friends of all four of my children will be cheering them on wildly from their homes in California. Then I remember that one of Mr14's best friends is about to visit Croatia for the first time, to meet his mother's extended family.

When Australia plays there is no argument. We are Team Australia. And the same applies when America plays.

My youngest - like the rest of us, a dual citizen - cannot keep things straight in his own mind when the country of his birth  or the country he now lives in play. 

"Is Australia winning?" he asks during the Portugal v USA match.

"No, America is playing, not Australia," I say.

Australia and America are in his mind interchangeable. They both represent and bring forth the feelings associated with the places we call "home". 

My son's loyalties are not divided, nor are they in competition with each other. In fact the opposite is the case. Like immigrants the world over, he feels more connections not less, and this is in my mind something to be celebrated. 




Monday, June 9, 2014


An Australian and American sit behind me, sharing a coffee and shooting the breeze on a rainy Tuesday morning in Sydney.

The conversation shifts gears, from Syria to Hilary. Will she, won't she? 

I anaesthetise my young boys with treats and technology. Please just let me have a moment of peace. 

I am counting down the days until my husband arrives. I miss him. I also miss, desperately, the ability to escape for an hour or three. 

I flip through the paper. No surprise, the cartoonists sum up the events of the day best with just a few squiggly lines and well chosen words. Boom. 

I tune back in. The men are now talking domestic policy, sharing their exasperation at the absence of a science minister and befuddlement over last night's #qanda. I want to add in my two cents.

I have something to say here in a way I never will about the goings on in Silicon Valley. Just as importantly, I have people to say it to.

We leave the cafe, and I ready myself for the sort of shopping experience I could just as easily have in the US at a generic and dreary discount department store. The only thing that distinguishes this store from any other are the rows and rows of packaged lollies. And even though they are second rate home brand versions of my childhood favourites I still have to restrain myself, cutting a bargain that will no doubt be broken before the week is out.

At the self-serve check-out - the only sort on offer - we ring up our purchases. A clothes horse to hang washing that I would normally lazily throw in the dryer; track suit pants for the kids that are so cheap I would rather not reflect too hard on the conditions under which they were made; and a bag of crappy plastic pirate figures and "accessories" that I plan to point at each time the boys demand an electronic.

Today I missed home a little bit. Not only my husband, but also the dog and - if I am being completely honest - the dryer. When the kids weren't shouting at each other they were shouting at me. Mostly it felt like the opposite of a holiday.

Maybe that is a good thing. If it doesn't feel like a holiday then it must mean that we are, in a sense, home. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Where is the boost for the "bus kids"? Buses again serve as potent symbol of inequality in Silicon Valley

In The Bus Kids: Children's Experiences with Voluntary Desegregation, Ira W. Lit follows the lives of a group of children who are bused from their homes in a low income minority community to the privileged school district on the other side of the freeway. His book shines a light on how school busing between districts for the purposes of desegregation impacts the children who are its intended beneficiaries.

The pseudonymous school district profiled in Lit's book is the one my own children attend, and of late I have noticed that the rickety yellow school buses that pull up each day to collect the most disadvantaged children in our school have been joined by a very different type of bus service. This service is the children's equivalent of the infamous Google (also Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft) buses that fly up and down 101, delivering engineers in air conditioned and wifi connected comfort from their homes in San Francisco to lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley.

The brand new Mercedes buses, promoted as a concierge service for children, are plastered with the company name "Boost". Ironically they are being marketed to the parents of children who least need a boost but are most likely to be given one every step of the way.

The Boost buses deliver children from school to enriching after school activities and home again. During the commute they are rescued from the dangers of boredom by the presence of on bus entertainers. All for $25 a ride and of course, this being Silicon Valley, booked via an app.

Lit writes poignantly of the particular traumas that children experience while riding the yellow school bus, accompanied only by a driver who cannot possibly supervise, let alone protect, entertain or even educate her charges while driving. And while the difficulties that the children Lit profiles in his book are not unique - many children in the US ride the bus to and from school each day - that bus trip serves to compound the pre-existing disadvantages these children have compared to their counterparts who live within the school district.

The experience of riding the yellow school bus fis the very opposite of the boost these children so badly need. And while it is only one aspect of their school day, it is one that is for the most part completely overlooked when examining the achievement gap between the "bus kids" and their classroom peers who by contrast arrive at school each day accompanied by a parent and with a back pack full to overflowing with inherited social, educational and financial capital.

Just as the much protested Google buses are more fairly characterized as a symbol rather than the cause of income inequality and the accompanying housing crisis in San Francisco and the Bay Area, the Boost buses will not impact the children who are bused each day from the other side of the freeway on rickety yellow buses. They just serve as a particularly stark reminder of the gross inequality that we seem to have become far too comfortable with as a community.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Read more, write less?

The two most common pieces of advice I hear from writers are some version of: "if you don't have time to read you don't have time to write" and "write everyday".

Ironically, an unforeseen side effect of my #52books52weeks commitment to read more has been that I am definitely writing less. In part this is for the obvious reason that reading more leaves less time for other activities, including writing (but also catching up on Breaking Bad and Mad Men). 

The less obvious reason is that immersing myself in great books has made the actual task of writing even more daunting. The voice of that nagging and destructive inner-critic that Dani Shapiro describes as "the toxic little troll sitting on my left shoulder" in her excellent memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life, has gone from a whisper to a roar. And setting ambitious reading goals has provided me with the perfect excuse to avoid what I fear.

My solution to this state of affairs is not to lower my annual reading goal, but to set myself the new goal of writing daily (weekends excluded). I am not setting word count or time goals, nor am I specifying what type of writing it must be. Instead, I am following the advice of Dani Shapiro:

"Anchor yourself somewhere - anywhere - on the page. You are committing, yes - but the commitment is to this tiny corner. One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next." 

Monday, March 31, 2014


"You are my shelter" said one brother to another, giggling as they huddled together under the umbrella.

The youngest casually wrapped his arm around his older brother's waist.

A perfect moment in an unremarkable day.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Conversations with strangers in cafes (or reading the classics in public)

This year, I have been forming some new reading goals as I go. The #52books52weeks goal remains unchanged, but the desire to finally catch up on some never read classics has so far seen me pick up (and finish) George Elliot's Middlemarch and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 

For the past two weeks I have lugged this beautiful edition of Anna Karenina around with me, leading to some lovely conversations with strangers in cafés. 

An Indian engineer - who I had previously shared nothing more than a polite smile and wave - confessed that he had begun but never completed a Tolstoy; an older (and wonderfully eccentric) woman told me she loves Tolstoy but had never picked up Anna Karenina (I suspect she might now); and a fellow mother, and ER physician, simply exclaimed at what a beautiful story it is.

I read Middlemarch on my ereader, and while it did not take away from the reading experience at all (I truly loved MM) I did not ever find myself in conversations with strangers.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

"So what activities does he do outside of school?" the doctor asks.

"Basketball" I respond. And then he cocks his head and gives me a questioning look, as if to say, Is that all?

I begin to pad my 9-year-old's activity schedule, with nothing to gain but my doctor's stamp of approval. 

"So he is starting up swimming soon. And we've enrolled him in a few summer camps."

The doctor nods. We have passed some sort of test, but only just, provisionally.

And this is how it feels all the time.  Not just for the kids, but for me too. 

My husband has the badge, the one that both literally and figuratively opens doors in Silicon Valley. Another great mind in a place where there is no room for average.


I meet for coffee with a new friend. And as promised she introduces me to her good friend, the author. When I get home I enter her name into google and discover not only the acclaimed novels, but other talents, grand prizes, an extraordinary mind.

Yet, today we sat and talked of nothing but our children and the never ending struggle to nudge aging uncooperative bodies into shape. And as we sipped on our lattes, I not only resisted the urge to pad my own resume, but erased the little I have achieved in my adult life outside the realm of motherhood.


I give myself a talking too. I hear the voices in my head of the people who love me, but who I also wear down with this crippling doubt, this need for reassurance. And just as I wish to feel that sense of belonging, of being worthy rather than provisional, I know that it is this sense of not belonging, of being an outsider, that is in many respects a gift.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Further on domestic violence, my long comment on a comment

This post started as a comment in response to a comment on my last post. It might be overkill, and in all honesty it is not just a response to John James comment but an opportunity to clarify and expand upon points made in this post Pity the perpetrators. At 1000 words it was too long to put inside a comment box. While I feel very strongly about the points I raised, I know that John James made his own in good faith (as did Lana Hirschowitz) and I while I disagree strongly I do so respectfully. 

John James, while I appreciate your lengthy response to my post, I completely disagree with you. I read Lana Hirschowitz's piece, and while I normally agree with Lana and certainly applaud her advocacy born of personal experience for greater mental health services, in this instance I very strongly disagree with what she had to say. I did not make her piece the focus of my post because it was just one of many articles/posts taking a similar approach.

While well-intentioned, I believe that the calls from not only Lana but others in the media to call for a focus on mental health rather than family violence immediately following two brutal murders of children at the hands of their father, is dangerous for the actual victims of domestic violence.

I also come to the issue of domestic violence with both professional expertise and a personal connection. I won't bore you with the details but I assure I am well-informed on this issue.

My first response following a brutal murder of a child by his father, a father who it is well documented had been terrorising the mother of the child for 11 years and had many warrants out for his arrest, is not to express empathy, compassion or understanding for the perpetrator. It is rather to experience anger, despair and grief for the victims.

I understand the instinct to blame mental illness because who wants to believe that a parent could brutally, and with premeditation murder his own child. It is too monstrous. But without speculating on the specific details of the most recent case, it does follow a common pattern. It is, shockingly, not surprising. I would go so far to say it is a classic case, and the mindset of the perpetrator is well understood by those who work in the field of domestic violence. I do not need to empathise with the perpetrator to understand his mindset. Those who work in domestic violence, or have been victims of domestic violence, have a pretty good understanding of it already.

Domestic Violence Victoria, the peak body for domestic violence services for women and children, reports the following:

"At an individual level, the most consistent predictor of the use of violence among men is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes."

And for those who wish to shift the focus from family violence to mental health, consider this finding:

"Intimate partner violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than of any other well-known risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. 59% of the health impact experience by women is anxiety and depression."

So in actual fact, it is family violence that is a leading cause of mental health issues in women (and death).

Consider how a woman currently stuck in an abusive relationship, or a woman who has 'left' but continues to be terrorised by her abuser, might receive these calls for empathy and compassion and understanding for the perpetrator following these two horrific events.

Consider that it reinforces perpetrators own self-perception, that he is in fact the victim in all this.

Consider that the many posts and articles written to this effect will make the real victims of domestic violence feel even more alone, more unsupported than they already do.

Consider that batterers, men who terrorise their families, are reading these calls for compassion and understanding and taking comfort.

Consider that while many have chosen to focus on mental health as the 'real' issue in this case, this approach is not supported by mental health experts who worry that these calls are in fact stigmatising people with mental health issues by making this connection between domestic violence and mental illness.

As @deltrimental noted: "My timeline is interesting atm: the mainstream calling for compassion for mental illness and MH advocates condemning that approach."

Consider that we do not ask for 'understanding' or empathy when talking about people who have committed other violent crimes. It is absolutely appropriate and required that criminologists, psychologists, public health experts and lawyers investigate the causes of crimes (especially violent crime) and implement both prevention and rehabilitative measures. But as a community it is just as important that we unequivocally condemn domestic violence and do not signal in any way that the perpetrators are people deserving of our sympathy. (And in saying this I am not advocating public floggings or removing judicial discretion in sentencing or other law and order measures commonly touted by the right.)

Consider that the Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, had this to say follow the brutal murder: "I find a coward present more often in a family violence issue than I do a person with a mental illness"

He also said: "It is my hope that Luke's death will be a very, very strong reminder to our community on the insidious and pervading nature of family violence."

Consider what Philip Cleary (@PhilCleary_Ind), campaigner against family violence, said on twitter 2 days ago: "The killer is not a victim. This was an act of revenge. This is not a story about depression but about a man's capacity for violence."

And: "Where were the politicians discussing family violence today? Why not a Royal Commission into family violence rather than one into unions?"

And: "Luke Batty is dead because our society and its institutions failed to deal with male violence. Seeking excuses in mental illness is foolish."

Victims/survivors of domestic violence have thanked me for writing this post. That is good enough for me.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pity the perpetrators

One thing that perpetrators of domestic violence have in abundance is pity. For themselves.

In their warped world view they are the victims, of the 'bitches' they married, of the family court system, of feminists. 

Yes, they are in fact the wronged party, the ones who should elicit our sympathy, rather than say the women and children they terrorise and kill (once a week in Australia).

So when posts are written calling for us to find it within us to show both compassion and understanding for perpetrators of family violence - and specifically for fathers who have murdered their children in order to punish the mothers - those who have lived it find it more than a little hard to swallow. 

As these calls are being made, women and children are walking on eggshells, are fearing for their lives, are concluding that even if their partner carried out his threats, their abusers world view would continue to be reinforced by the community and by the media. 

Abusers are master manipulators. They will bring flowers, they will cry, they will promise to change, and they will say they cannot live without you. They will prey upon their partners seeming infinite capacity for compassion for their own ends. 

Public calls for compassion reinforce this dynamic and make it even harder to leave. 

Those who have experienced domestic violence are often, and for obvious reasons, unable or reluctant to speak out. So their voices and wisdom are lost, the focus shifts away from the actual victims with lightning speed. 

Even when life is taken, the instinct seems to be to continue to protect and even excuse the actions of the perpetrator.

As Louise Taylor points out here the same response, the call for a compassionate response, for understanding of the unthinkable, is rarely if ever made in relation to other crimes.

It is patriarchy itself, the sense of entitlement and outright misogyny of men who continue to subscribe to this world view, that needs to be challenged rather than supported.

Today, with yet another column stating that it is mental health, not domestic violence that is the issue, it would seem that for now the perpetrators, the MRA and fathers' rights activists, have won.

The perpetrators who terrorise ànd sometimes kill are NOT the victims.

(This post is a continuation of the thoughts I expressed on twitter last night, this time without the limits imposed by 140 characters.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

An evening with author Ruth Ozeki

On Tuesday, January 21st I had the privilege of hearing Ruth Ozeki - author of the Booker shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being - speak at Stanford University. 

On the relationship between reader and writer: 

Ozeki says that all of her novels begin with a question that she needs to work out. When she is writing she exists in a world that does not include the reader, but she sees a work of fiction as being a collaboration between reader and writer. As she puts it, after she has done her bit - and if she has done it well - it is then picked up by the reader who brings their unique experiences completely to that fictional world.

"Without that the fictional world will not come alive. This is replicated every time that book is read, by each individual reader. Together we create this fictional world." 

On writing and survival: 

Suicide is central to A Tale for the Time Being, and Ozeki explains that in Japanese storytelling it functions almost as a trope. As a non-Christian nation, suicide is not viewed as a sin, and is sometimes seen instead as a redemptive act. 

"For me writing is a form of survival, a trick I learned early on" and "every story is a story of survival as long as it is told. The telling is the survival." She says that in A Tale for the Time Being, "Nao is learning this as a young writer. As long as she continues to tell stories she will survive." 

Writing is always "in retrospect" and Nao is trying to catch up to now. And she does ..." Ozeki does not elaborate, aware that many in the audience have not yet read the book but for those who have this makes sense. 

On being a practicing Buddhist:

"It is very complicated practicing Zen in the west. Every time Buddhism moves to a different culture it changes. At every level there is tension there ... Anytime we start to idealise something ... then we are in trouble." 

In Ozeki's words "In the west Zen is so Protestant". She compares these western attitudes to the Japanese phenomenon of Zen priests - along with employers and professors - bringing their acolytes out at night for the explicit purpose of getting drunk.

On being a Buddhist and being a writer: 

Referencing Zadie Smith's essay, Fail Better, Ozeki says that in Zen meditation, as in writing, you have to try and fail again and again and again. "Zen meditation is a constant practice of failure." But she says that this is not a failure as you develop the faith that you can come back. And so too in writing, she says that it is not failure but is the very definition of the writing process. 

Quoting a 13th century Zen master she says "Life is a continuous mistake" and for Ozeki this idea is liberating.

On My Year of Meats (1997)

Ozeki completed the book just as Mad Cow disease blew up. She says everybody panicked, thinking that her book was too late, they had missed the moment but "little did we know the story was never going to go away". As an author she says she is very happy the book is still in print but "as a citizen of the world I wish the book was obsolete." 

She describes My Year of Meats as a book about the engendering of ignorance and corporate media. And she says very frankly that she needed a product and happened to choose meat because it was "funny" whereas other choices, particularly tobacco, were not.

"When I'm writing a novel there is usually a seed of remorse." In the case of My Year of Meats that remorse derived from her 30s when she was making tv programs sponsored by unsavory corporations, including the meat and tobacco industries. 

After writing My Year of Meats she felt she had given short shrift to the farmers who she describes as being caught between a rock and a hard place. And so she wrote All Over Creation, which is about genetically modified organisms. 

On writing a novel as a 'thought experiment': 

Ozeki says that "the minute you ask one question it engenders another. As a writer it is a thought experiment, it has a natural end to it. When the questions are answered enough it is finished. This book [A Tale for the Time Being] was about not knowing. I finished the book when I realised the book was about not knowing." 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2/52 Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

How to do justice to a book as enthralling, as steeped in research, as beautifully written as Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.

One of the most striking aspects of this telling of history through the eyes of an 'ordinary' woman - who happened to be the younger sister of one of the 'Great Men' of history - is the serious treatment Lepore gives to the subject of child birth, breastfeeding and the care of children.  

Lepore does not idealise motherhood, nor does she present it as mere drudgery. In Jane's letters she finds evidence of the joy that she took in mothering (while little if any evidence of that is found in her role of wife):

"Her days were days of flesh: the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched around her neck, the softness. Her days were days of toil: swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone's faces, answering everyone's cries, feeding everyone's hunger, cleaning everyone's waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did." (p. 86)

And this:

"Her nights were unquiet. Her husband reached for her. Her belly swelled, and emptied, and swelled again. Her breasts filled, and emptied, and filled again. Her children waked, first one, and then another, tumbling together, like a litter. She must have had very little sleep ... They grew like flowers. She pressed them to her heart. The days passed to months, the months to years, and, in her Book of Ages, she pressed her children between the pages."

And in a line that I can certainly identify with more than two centuries later, Lepore writes:

"She had no time, no quiet, no solitude. But she loved to read. 'My little wons are Interupting me Every miniut,' she wrote her brother'". (p. 96)

The final section of Book of Ages is an exploration of history itself, of how it is told and by whom:

"In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin's life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister's became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women." (p. 292)

In recreating the life of Jane Franklin - her primary source being the letters exchanged between Jane and Benjamin Franklin throughout their lives - Lepore's Book of Ages provides the reader with an historical record that reads like a novel.

This is no 'summer' read but it is well worth the effort. It is a book to savor.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2014: Reading more diversely (and 20 books by writers of colour)

Sunili Govinnage (follow her on twitter @sunili) has written eloquently here  about her commitment to only read books written by writers of colour in 2014. And while I am not making the same commitment, I would like my 2014 reading list to be significantly more diverse than it was in 2013 where I read only five books by non-white and/or non-western authors:

Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her
Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowlands
NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
Paul Yoon, Once the Shore

In 2014 I already have these books sitting on my shelves (real and virtual):

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being 
James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (National Book Award winner)
Isabelle Allende, Maya's Notebook
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Louise Erdrich, The Round House 
Zadie Smith, NW
Chang-Rae Lee, The Surrendered 
Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea 
Paul Yoon, Snow Hunters 
Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow


Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: A Memoir 
Oscar Martinez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
Baratunde Thurston, How to Be Black
Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi

As well as wishing to read more writers of colour, I aim to make progress on the giant pile of books by Australian authors I brought home on my last trip and will be checking out Anita Heiss's (follow her on twitter @AnitaHeiss) Black Book Challenge.

I spent the last minutes of 2013 in bed attempting to finish Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season before the clock struck midnight. I didn't succeed so this will be the first book on my 2014 #52books52weeks list (and one of the only science fiction books I have ever read), followed by Jill Lepore's brilliant Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. These two books could not be more different, one set in the distant past, one in an imagined future, but both featuring interesting strong (white) female protagonists.

In January I am excited to report I will be attending talks by Ruth Ozeki and Amy Tan .. which means I need to do some fast reading. I look forward to sharing some of what these two writers have to say here in the coming weeks.