Monday, 26 September 2016

Recent reads - spring 2016

Have I mentioned how amazing holidays are because I finally get to read the books I've been meaning to for so long? I'm particularly thrilled because now I'm a third of the way through my holiday reading list, having finished: 2/6 holiday reads! 🎉📚✔️✔️

The current issue of Dumbo Feather magazine is particularly brilliant. All interviewees are change-makers of some sort, including feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who's mission is to make invisible injustices visible ✊; Indigenous advocate and opera singer Deborah Cheetham, who urges Australians to continue actively learning from Indigenous Australians as we are only denying our own richness of lives and understanding of the world by shutting out that part of our histories 🎙; and environmental activist Laurie David, who most famously produced Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' 🌿. Her quote from this film - "Between denial and despair there is action" - really resonated with me, leading me to feel incredibly inspired and empowered to continue pursuing the social justice issues I feel strongly about ✊🎙🌿👊.

I have to admit (in case you've had similar thoughts) that it took me a while to enjoy reading Dumbo Feather 😱. The interviews are presented differently to others, and I found the layout a bit off-putting to begin with (very narrow margins, varying text sizes - don't ask 🙄). But if you're interested, I urge you to persevere, because now I'm loving its conversational style and the fact that it does present all interviewees as ordinary people who have courageously pursued what drives and inspires them. Not to mention what I now consider to be the gorgeous layout of the magazine itself - there's something so satisfyingly indulgent and pleasing with it 😍!

Cate Kennedy's 'Dark Roots' made me re-appreciate the beauty of short stories. For a while now I've avoided reading fictional novels because I haven't felt like I had the time to properly immerse myself in the world of novel-length stories. So instead I've read various collections of non-fiction articles, which I've felt are more achievable but can at times feel burdensome. Short stories could be the antidote to this dilemma, and Kennedy's collection was particularly immersive.

Set in Australia 🇦🇺 , the stories focus on various tipping points in the mostly ordinary lives of everyday people. Kennedy unpacks the seemingly insignificant moments that lead to potentially life-changing outcomes; from a woman queueing at Australian customs who is attempting to smuggle heroin into the country 🛬, to a woman who's lover becomes comatose after asking her to buy black sesame seeds from the shops 🏨. Not all stories are heavily burdensome; with others more lightheartedly exploring the coincidences that sprout up in life 🔮.  But there's certainly a sense of unease that permeates the collection, leaving you contemplating these significant moments and causing you to reexamine similar turning points in your own life. As someone who can go through life wondering 'what if...', these stories particularly resonated me as many of them centred around this very question. And if you're someone who tends to wonder about life's choices in the same way, you'll probably find these stories equally immersive and satisfying.

Monday, 18 July 2016

I'm back!

In short: Thanks to Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales and Lena Dunham for reigniting my wish to blog again.

Wowzas. It's been 12 whole months since I last posted here. How time flies when you're finishing your teaching degree, applying for jobs, travelling around South America and starting your first year of teaching. Humble brags aside, it has been an incredibly busy 12 months, where I sadly haven't been able to read as much as I'd like to. Subsequently I haven't felt like I've had the time to properly reflect on the few books I have read either.

And if I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, I was feeling quite uninspired and overwhelmed by the prospect of writing more blogs for a while. Am I even supposed to admit that? Is that like a parent admitting that sometimes they really can't stand their children? Well, I've said it. And while the reasons for feeling this way are varied and will become more apparent shortly, I've decided to share some of the thoughts I've had over the past 12 months so that you can get a better idea of where I'm at. If you don't really care, then this process will still be beneficial for me as it will remind me that blogging is a perfectly legitimate way to be spending my free time.

So, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts from the past few months:

5. Recently I've read lots of books that have blown my mind in awesomeness.

So much so that I've been bursting to share their awesomeness with anyone I can. Some of these gems include Phoebe Gloeckner's The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures, Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Stay tuned for reviews of these, and many more, over the next few weeks.

4. I love that I get to relive the pleasures of books I read when I'm reviewing them.

That's part of the reason why I don't write about books I dislike - there's no need to re-live the disappointment or frustration again. Not to mention that I rarely finish books I don't enjoy to begin with anyway. Though that's beside the point.

The point is, when I'm writing about books I've enjoyed reading, I get to emotionally reconnect with the said books and - to borrow an idea from Amy Poehler's memoir Yes Please - 'time travel' back to when I was reading it and re-live the pleasures I experienced. Who wouldn't want to go through that fun journey again and again?

This brings me nicely to my next point, which is...

3. I'm forced to reconsider the issues/themes/conundrums the books raise in more detail than I would if I was just reading them without a third-party outlet.

Now, don't get me wrong. Sometimes it is nice to just read something for pleasure's sake without having to dissect and analyse the bigger picture meaning of the characters/symbols/themes in the books.

BUT, part of the pleasure I find with books is exploring how they compliment and/or contradict the way we as readers make sense of our world. This is a pleasure I've been attempting to communicate with my English students, who despite being an apathetic audience at times, have reignited the enjoyment of reading for me.

This realisation is also partly due to my discovery of Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales' podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, which entertainingly explores the books, movies, TV shows and articles that Crabb and Sales consume. Their enthusiastic and critically insightful reviews have heavily influenced me wanting to get back in the game of reviewing too. So, if either Crabb or Sales happen to be reading this blog, thank you very much!

2. I've decided to put less pressure on myself.

This may surprise you depending on how highly you rate this blog. But honestly, I'm not one who likes to produce things that are sub-standard. I'm one of those people who during a job interview will genuinely say that my weaknesses include my debilitating tendency to be a perfectionist.

Yet still, I've published posts on this blog that I'm not 110% happy with. And instead of moving on and working on my next hit post, I've previously felt completely debilitated by producing writing that I'm 110% satisfied with. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But yet I found myself at the point where I decided to stop writing altogether as I was too frustrated with publishing 'sub-standard' posts.

This is an attitude I'm not particularly proud of, especially as I try and discourage my students from adopting similar behaviours when they are frustrated with their work. So, in light of not being a hypocrite, and inspired by events in episode 10 of the fifth season of Girls (where the protagonist Hannah Horvath decides that she's ready to recommence writing after a two-year hiatus), I decided that I would take my own advice and improve my writing in one of the best ways I can - by writing more and being open to advice on the areas I know aren't working.

1. What about the books I read in the past 12 months that I didn't make enough notes about to write reviews on... 

...Won't they get upset if I ignore them altogether? 

Perhaps. So to make it up to them, I've made a collage of some of the books I did read so they can get some recognition. It's also an opportunity for me to show off my newly learned skill of collage making...voila!

Phew! I'm exhausted now! So much so that perhaps it'll be another 12 months before I write anything else...

Just kidding (wait, were you just breathing a sigh of relief?). Anyway, I will stop, let you celebrate the fact that this blog hasn't gone away forever, and reassure you that it won't be too long before the next post is up.

Until next time...

Monday, 6 July 2015

Things I like reading when I need a break from books

As much as it pains me to say it, sometimes I need a break from reading books. I wish I had more stamina to read as many books as I'd like to all of the time, but alas this is not the case. For instance when I'm in the middle of a uni semester I feel much less inclined to commit to an entire novel-sized book given that most of my time is spent reading textbooks and articles. Otherwise I'll feel like my brain will explode if I engage in much more new information. 

But do not fear because I have good news. In my pursuit to quench my thirst for reading I've come across the following publications that fulfil this goal because they are stimulating and somewhat literary without being too onerous, namely because they can be chewed off in small bites. I can also attest that I have successfully read them during my uni semester without my brain exploding. So in no particular order, I present them to you here.

1. Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings is a quarterly released journal with a number of authors contributing to each issue. The contributions are in the forms of mini-essays covering a variety of topics from the declining relationship between Australia and Indonesia to a critique of how bisexuality was portrayed in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each issue features a commentary section that covers topical issues of the day, a short story fiction section, an interview with an author, and reviews on films and books. It's been one of my favourite non-book discoveries of recent times and each issue is a genuinely fantastic read.  

2. The Canary Press

The Canary Press mainly publishes fiction stories, some of which are more abstract than others. The contributions range in length from super short poems to stories that are a few pages long, so you can knock off stories reasonably quickly. The artwork accompanying the stories in The Canary Press is terrific and a treat in itself as well. If you're a fan of quirky, short stories, then this is the magazine for you. 

3. Quarterly Essays

If you're after a publication that does explore topics more in-depth, then the Quarterly Essay might just be what you're after. Published on a quarterly basis, each issue features a long-form essay (about 25,000 words) exploring a particular topic from some of Australia's most prominent thinkers and authors. Past issues include Anna Krien's essay on the importance of animals, Waleed Ali's essay on the future of conservatism in Australia, Noel Pearson's essay on race and recognition in Australia and David Malouf's essay of the search for contentment in the modern world. 

4. New Philosopher

The New Philospher is an independent, ad-free quarterly magazine. Each issue focuses on a particular theme, ranging from Narcissism to Progress to Online Identity to Travel. A variety of writers contribute to the magazine, so it's a fantastic publication to gain different perspectives about the themes in focus. As it's a magazine it's also a very visual publication, so it includes artwork, photographs and comic strips relating to the theme being explored. The New Philospher also has an excellent website with links and further articles to follow up on if you haven't got enough from the magazine - check it out here.

5. Womankind

Womankind is a beautifully compiled magazine predominantly aimed at women. However unlike many women's magazines, Womankind is ad-free, and instead of focusing on subjects such as fashion, beauty and gossip, it offers refreshing and thoughtful articles, stories and submissions by women on a variety of topics. Similarly to The New Philosopher (the two magazines are related), each issue focuses on a particular theme, but in Womankind the theme is much looser with not all contributions centring around it. The Womankind website also has links to some terrific resources which you can view here.

What are some of your go-to publications when you need a break from reading books?

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb

As a young woman with high career aspirations, I've often wondered why there are still so few females in senior leadership positions in Australia. This is particularly perplexing for me given that there's been more than forty years of increased workforce opportunities for women. Subsequently I've wondered why men still dominate most senior leadership positions. I've also questioned what it means to be a wife in 21st century Australia and whether it's even a necessary role in current times when women are supposedly experiencing more rights and opportunities than ever before. Annabel Crabb's playfully titled book, The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives, is a terrific exploration of these very issues and how they relate to each other.

I'll begin by sharing some provocative facts from The Wife Drought with you:

1. Australia ranks 28th in the world for pay equality. Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland currently lead these rankings. In Australia, the higher women progress in professions such as law and corporate business, the more likely they are to be paid less than men on no other grounds than because they are women.

2. While workplace opportunities have expanded for women in recent decades, so too have their domestic expectations. Yes more women are working full time, but they're still likely to do more than twice as much housework as their full-time working husbands. In fact, the birth of a first child increases a woman's household chores by half. It increases again with the birth of a second child. Strangely women will continue to take on more domestic duties compared to their spouses the higher up the career ladder they climb. Conversely the birth of first child has negligible effects on males. Another child decreases this again.

3. If women's participation in the workforce became more like men's, it would add 11 per cent to Australia's gross domestic produce.

What Crabb also discovers is that as much as Australians might like to think of themselves as living in a modern, progressive country, the 1950s nuclear family unit is still the most dominant domestic structure for families. 60% of families have a female 'wife'* compared with only 6% of families having a male 'wife'. Men still do more of the paid work and women more of the unpaid.

This archaic structure isn't surprising once you start delving deeper into why it has persisted despite decades of workplace reforms encouraging women to participate in the workforce. This is where the strength of Crabb's thesis lies for me, because she cleverly explores this dilemma from a refreshingly original perspective: that of questioning what's changed on the home-front for women and men in all this time.

According to Crabb, this is where the biggest issues lie. For, while more doors have opened for women in the workplace, none have been closed off for them domestically. Consequently many women who have children end up doing most of the domestic work while men are able to focus on their careers. Thus, Crabb comes to the conclusion that women are in need of their own wives to look after all of the traditionally 'wifey' responsibilities so that the women who want to can get back into the workforce easier and progress with their careers with the support that will help them to do so.

I'll take a step back for a moment though. When men and women start out in the workforce, they are on a reasonably even playing-field. They tend to earn similar salaries, are generally given the same opportunities for promotion and share household duties equally. It's when women start having babies that things change.

When women have babies, they take leave from work. Subsequently, because Australia does not have an equitable paid parental leave scheme, women have a lesser income while they stay home to look after their child. When and if women decide to return to work, it's usually on a part-time basis. Therefore they are less likely to be considered for promotions because they simply do not spend enough time in the office to prove themselves to their employers. This is in contrast to men who, aided by the help of their wives who take care of the domestic duties, are able to steam-roll ahead with their careers.

That's if women decide to go back to work in the first place of course. Many decide not to, on the grounds that paying for childcare barely covers the wages that they will be earning.

This in itself is a flawed argument for a number of reasons disputed by Crabb. Firstly, why is only the woman's wage considered when making these calculations? Shouldn't some of the man's wage be also considered when weighing up how costly child care will be? Secondly, while in the short term the additional wages may only just be covering the cost of childcare, the long term benefits should surely outweigh them. After all, the woman will get the chance to re-establish herself as a valued member of her workplace so that she can be considered for future promotions and subsequently earn greater wages. So really, the sooner the wife can get back to work, the better. Unfortunately these considerations are not always made when weighing up whether or not a woman with children should return to work.

At any rate I digress and will return to the main discussion. What can we do to better support women returning to the workforce? This is where Crabb's discussion gets particularly interesting. While she returns to rethinking the domestic expectations placed on women and men, she interestingly extends her argument by focusing on how men can be better supported to contribute more on the home-front and level the playing-field for women.

Since the most drastic changes within a man and woman's relationship result from a first child being born, new interventions need to be introduced at this critical time. While women obviously need time off work to have the child and bond with their baby, men need more encouragement to take paternity leave so that they can be just as involved in the child's formative months and consequently get as much practice at being a parent as possible, which women already currently get. After all, women are not born with an innate gift to look after their children and households - they simply get more practice at it. So men need the same opportunities to practice their parental and domestic skills.

How can this happen? A number of years ago countries such as Norway introduced policies where a portion of paid parental leave would only be paid if fathers took time off work. This has proved to be extremely effective because statistically Norwegian men now spend more time helping with domestic work than what they were forty-odd years ago when the forced paternity leave policies were first introduced.

So, we need better systems in place to get men out of the workplace and back into homes. After all, a study published in 2012 showed that 79% of young fathers would prefer a compressed work week. This means that workplaces need to become just as flexible and supportive of men's parenthood as it is for women, which is unfortunately not the case currently. Therefore we need to get better at asking for what we want, especially when this contradicts social expectations. Crabb acknowledges that this won't be easy, particularly when research shows that people tend to be treated worse at work if they do not conform to traditional expectations of them. But this shouldn't stop us from demanding fairer rights so that we can be better spouses and family members. We need to do this so that men can be more involved with their family life and women more involved in the workforce without being judged negatively.

I've only scratched the surface of what Crabb discusses in her book, which is far more comprehensively explored and articulated than what's been discussed in this post. Overall The Wife Drought is a witty, well-researched, historical and contemporary account of Australian women's involvement in the workforce. Crabb recognises that changing the current structures and expectations of men and women domestically and in the workforce won't be easy, particularly with the existing policies and services (such as childcare) in place. Nevertheless Crabb offers refreshing and innovative perspectives of how women can be better supported to return to work so that they can achieve their full career potential, while also encouraging men to be more involved in the domestic sphere so that they too can lead better balanced lives.

Watch Annabel Crabb discuss The Wife Drought with George Megalogenis below:

*What Crabb means by the term 'wife' isn't the traditional 'woman married to a man' definition. Rather Crabb is referring to any woman, whether married or not, who finds herself in a partnership doing many of the jobs traditionally expected of a wife - such as looking after the house and children while her partner works. Crabb is aware that this might limit her discussion to heterosexual couples which is somewhat problematic, but argues that many couples in homosexual relationships have better balanced relationships compared with heterosexual couples as they tend to reject the traditional roles that individuals in heterosexual couples usually succumb to.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Review: The Year of Living Danishly, by Helen Russell

Denmark is a country I have a big crush on. Home of the Danish pastry, the Little Mermaid, stylish furniture, Crown Princess Mary and progressive political and social policies, it's a country that has a lot going for it. Not to mention that it's been classified as the world's happiest country. So it's unsurprising that I had to read this book when I found out about it.

The Year of Living Danishly follows the real-life story of Helen Russell, a Brit whose husband gets transferred to Denmark to work for none other than the biggest toy producer in the world, Lego.

While researching about Denmark prior to their move, Russell learns that Danish people are some of the happiest people in the world. So donning her journalist hat on, Russell sets herself the project of finding out how truthful this title is and, if it is true, how the Danes have accomplished this feat.

I won't give away all of Russell's findings because then you wouldn't need to read the book, which I'm sure Russell wouldn't be too pleased about. But I will share some of the things I learnt about Denmark that made me want to pack my bags and move there right now.

Things I learnt about Denmark:
  1. Inspiring surroundings and innovative design are very important; not only for looks but for people's happiness and wellbeing. This is something the Danish government recognised when the country was recovering from an economic slump in the 1920's. The government saw the potential of innovatively designed objects (such as household items like the egg chair) in improving people's morale, so agreed to fund and support designers in their work. 
  2. High taxes are ok if it means your country is looking after the health and wellbeing of its citizens. Education is free. Child care is highly subsidised. If someone wants to change jobs, the government will fund 80-90% of their wages for up to two years after quitting their jobs. Yes this means that people pay more taxes (high income earners can pay up to 50% of their wages in taxes), but it also means that people are more likely to be happy and feel fulfilled because they know their government will support them at critical points in life (e.g. if they want a career change).
  3. A healthy work/life balance is possible. In Denmark, there is no need to constantly work overtime because it's expected that you'll be productive while at work and will finish what's required in that time. And there's no need to brag about how much work you need to do/have done because Danes are not fans of bragging either. On a Friday most people will finish by 3pm. If parents (either male or female) need to take or collect their children from child care, they can get to work later and finish earlier if required. 
  4. Denmark would be a great country to raise a family in. Both new mothers and fathers are expected to take paid parental leave upon the birth of a newborn. A family allowance is paid to mothers with children below the age of 18 regardless of earnings. Every baby is guaranteed a place in day care from age 6 months to when they commence primary school. I'll mention again that child care is heavily subsidised. Most children will go to a state-funded public school, which, similarly to the school systems in other Scandinavian countries, are of a very high calibre.
  5. Danes love potatoes and pastry. Enough said.

I realise that Denmark is not the world's perfect country and that the actual reality of living there can be vastly different to one's ideals of what it's like to live there. Russell touches on these challenges she faces herself, particularly how difficult it is to adjust to a new way of life. Neither does Russell shy away from sharing some of Denmark's flaws. For example, there is a lot of pressure on new mother's to return to work, where not doing so has a very strong social stigma attached to it. And the Danes are heavy drinkers (though many countries would compete for that reputation). But still, these flaws can be somewhat excused when you consider how progressive Denmark is politically and socially. 

Russell summarises this well in the following quote:

'Yes, it's expensive here. But it's Denmark - it's worth it. I don't mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn't a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes, just as I pay mine. And if we all have marginally less money to buy more stuff that we don't really need anyway as a result, well I'm starting to think it's a deal worth making.'

With all that being said, you may be surprised to hear that I wasn't necessarily a fan of Russell's style of writing throughout her book - at times and I found it a bit too self-indulgent for my liking. Don't get me wrong - I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Denmark and hence reading what was written. I just didn't always enjoy how it was written. But I'd say that just comes down to personal preference, rather than poor writing. So if you're curious about Denmark, this is still a great read to learn more about this great country. Nyde!

Read more: