Book Review: ‘Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World’, by Jane Caro, University of Queensland Press, Queensland

Penny Wong, Corrine Grant, Christine Milne, Wendy Harmer, Stella Young, Tara Moss…the list goes on. It is a long list of accomplished, intelligent, articulate women who have written articles for this book. Achievers, success stories them all. Surely we don’t need feminism if women are achieving the great heights these women have achieved? Surely we already live in an equal society? These women are allowed to speak, to write, to have their say in our democracy.

No. We are not there yet, and this book proves it beyond any doubt.

I am a feminist, loud and proud. I have been since my undergrad days when I first discovered the insidious ways our patriarchal society has of silencing women. Reducing women. Harming women. And girls.

A lot has changed since my undergrad days. I have had a successful career in my previous profession in a couple of male-dominated industries (banking and IT). I have married and had children.

And recently I have watched with horror what happens when women really do reach the heights of power in my society. You would have had to be living under a rock not to notice that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has attracted hatred and vitriol unlike any other PM in Australian history. Why? What has she done to deserve it? Some lay the blame at how she came into power – she ‘knifed’ the elected PM, Kevin Rudd. It’s not the first time a sitting PM has been ‘knifed’, though. Let’s look at policy for a second (please don’t go to sleep, I promise it will be brief) – Gillard has pushed through the NDIS, ensuring more support than ever for the millions of Australians with disabilities. She has pushed through the Gonski reforms, ensuring all Australian children will get a first rate education. She has pushed through environmental reforms that hold big business accountable and will go a long way to protecting our planet. We have low unemployment and low interest rates while many countries around the world teeter on the edge of the fiscal cliff. The rest of the world looks at us with envy while we whine.

All this in a highly hostile parliament. She shows grace under fire. She holds her head up under gruesome attack. She doesn’t shy away from battles. She’s tough. Is she perfect? Of course not. Has she made mistakes? Of course she has. But is she good at her job? You could be forgiven for not knowing, because all we hear about is her cleavage, her thighs and her big red box.

Yet she’s destroying the joint. When Alan Jones made this comment in 2012 he finally voiced, openly and without any fear of reprisal, what many Australians were thinking. Women are destroying the joint. A joint so wondrously managed by men. Ahem.

Well, good on you Alan. You unleashed a sleeping giant. You pumped the bellows on the women’s movement. If there was ever any doubt that women still needed to fight, you killed it. And women (and men) responded by fighting. Social media sprang into action with a campaign that valued calm, civil debate and reasoned argument. This collections of essays and short stories, edited by Jane Caro, is another outcome of Jones’ comment. The essays are alternately humorous and devastating. It is possible to feel overwhelmed when reading the statistics and stories of systematic, entrenched sexism and misogyny in Australia.

‘Girl Talk’ by Lily Edelstein is particularly heart-breaking – this is the story of how young women in Australia view their rights and their place in society, and how they are attacked when they try to stand up. It might make you weep for your daughters, except for the fact that Edelstein is unfailingly certain that girls are powerful and capable enough to make a change.

(And if you think that experience is limited to Australian girls, read about how girls in the UK are impacted here.)

Who would I recommend this book to? Well, Alan Jones for a start. He could do with a little education. But seriously, firstly I would recommend this book to young women. Let’s shine a light on the realities that we so often dismiss or ignore. Let’s tell young women they can expect more. They should expect to feel safe, they should expect to reach the heights of their talents, they should expect to have the same choices as boys and men. I would also recommend this book to mothers and fathers of daughters and sons. Education about girl’s and women’s rights begins in the home, just like everything else.

And finally, in the interests of not man-hating (because, contrary to a belief in some circles, that is not what feminism is about), I can highly recommend these two articles.

In this, John Birmingham writes a call to action for men. The act you walk past is the act you accept. Man up!

And in this piece, Army Chief Lieutenant General Morrison speaks out against inequality and sexism in the armed forces in a powerful statement for the rights of women.

It’s so easy to love these two men. They are beacons of enlightenment at a time when we desperately need more. It will take more men like these, as well as feisty strong women, to bring about equality. Let’s celebrate them and cheer them on, as well as cheering on the brilliant women in this essential collection.

You can buy Destroying the Joint here, or join the Destroy the Joint Facebook or Twitter  groups here.

Book Review: ‘Peace, Love and Khaki Socks’ by Kim Lock, MidnightSun Publishing Adelaide

Amy Silva is not your ordinary army ‘wife’. She’s organic-produce adoring, hemp-wearing nuevo-hippy. Her boyfriend, Dylan Brookes, thrives in the macho environment of the Army while maintaining a love of Amy’s wilful difference. As Amy says, “Every day I live with the contradiction. The Pacifist Hippy, in love with The Gun-Toting Soldier.”

But all that changes when Amy finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and sucked up into the medicalised world of pregnancy and childbirth – a world where Amy feels more than uncomfortable. She feels downright disempowered, out of control and ignored by the “best obstetrician in Darwin”.

Amy embarks on a quest to come to terms with her unplanned pregnancy and find her confidence in a system that seems destined to break her down and spit her out. But not everyone is on board when she makes decisions that are considered less than mainstream: certainly not her obstetrician, or her best friend Hannah who is coming to terms with her own deeply buried pain, and not even the ever-supportive Dylan, who struggles to accept Amy’s decisions.

Adelaide-based author Kim Lock has written a novel that somehow does that most difficult thing – talk about pregnancy, childbirth and women’s choices without sounding preachy. Until now I thought that an impossible task. These aspects of womanhood are so deeply personal, and each woman’s experience of them so individual, that there is always a danger of sounding evangelical whenever you spout an opinion – whether you spout it like a gentle stream or a crashing waterfall, and whether that opinion is mainstream or not. But because Lock’s reader is taken along for the ride on Amy’s journey and is in her head every step of the way as she struggles to do what’s right for her, it’s possible to embrace Amy’s story and feel her eventual empowerment with her.

Lock writes with considerable humour and wit. She has an excellent ear for laconic speech and it is refreshing to witness her nail a wonderfully Australian tone. Her portrayal of life as a Darwin-based Army ‘wife’ is eye opening and interesting. She is brave in her tackling of the sticky and icky aspects of pregnancy as well as the emotional turmoil. But more fundamentally, her ability to capture and portray the experience of pregnancy and childbirth in all its complications, fascination and bizarre life-changing strangeness is admirable. It’s not always that these subjects are tackled with such humour, raw honesty and emotion.

Who would I recommend this to? Pretty much any women who has ever been pregnant or considered pregnancy – especially if they are unconvinced or sceptical about all the messages we are fed through mainstream media about what women ‘should’ do or be or feel.

Buy Peace, Love and Khaki Socks or watch the book trailer here.

Book Review: ‘Burial Rites’ Hannah Kent, Picador Sydney

“But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”

Unravel is exactly what Hannah Kent allows her protagonist, Agnes Magnusdottir, to do. It is 1829 and Agnes is convicted of a brutal double murder and sentenced to death by beheading. Agnes, living as she does in the isolated farming provinces of northern Iceland, cannot be housed in a prison, so she is billeted to a farming family to spend her remaining days as the politically ambitious District Commissioner fashions the ways and means of her execution.

What else is there for Agnes to do but let it all unravel? Kent deals with this unravelling with deft ease. Agnes slowly reveals the story that the courts did not hear through her relationships with the farming family and her priest until we understand Agnes and the terrible circumstances that led to her conviction. It is in Agnes’ unravelling that we see her unfathomable strength in adversity and understand her character. In allowing herself to be seen, the injustice of her treatment is all rendered the more brutal.

Agnes’ story is a fictionalisation of the true story of the last person to be executed by the state in Iceland but Kent takes her significant knowledge of that slice of history and weaves it into a compelling and insightful story, allowing the reader into the fascinating and superstitious world of nineteenth century Iceland, and ultimately into the heart of a woman variously described as ‘the murderess’, a ‘monster’ and an ‘evil-doer’.

I could not put Burial Rites down. It drew me in until it blocked everything else out. Burial Rites belongs to that rarefied group of books – the best kind of books: the ones that make real life less important than the story unfolding on the page. Its achievement is in no small part due to the dignified yet fraught relationship between Agnes and her priest, Toti, and also to the awesome, impossibly difficult landscape of northern Iceland. These two elements together scream movie potential. It’s just a matter of time before Hollywood comes knocking on Ms Kent’s door and I for one can’t wait to see what it all looks like on the silver screen.

Which of my friends would I recommend this to? Those who like to be transported by stories, those who love to be absorbed into another world, taken away and transformed somehow in the process.

Find out more about Burial Rites, including where to buy it, here.

Book Review: ‘Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ Susan Cain, Penguin Books, London

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This is a book about people who don’t really like to talk and paradoxically, it’s got the whole world talking. It’s got the introverts talking (‘hooray, finally, understand me, validate me’) and it’s got the extroverts talking (‘look at me, look at me, look at me’). Well, that might be a smidge unfair. Extroverts aren’t all like that. Not all the time anyway. 🙂

But seriously, what Cain’s book does show us is the almighty power of the introvert. The thinker, the silent contemplator, the slow deliberator. Otherwise known as Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly, Jane Austen, Mahatma Ghandi, Bill Gates, Al Gore, JK Rowling. And many others. This book is a refuge for introverts – reading it I very nearly wept. It spelt out all the things I knew about myself but never labelled for fear of finding myself too freaky. That I recharge by being alone – that being with people, even people I love and whose company I treasure, is difficult and draining sometimes. That I think before I act. That the sound of the telephone ringing can sometimes fill me with dread. That I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m working. That I’d rather hang out with a few friends than have a huge party (although in my younger years I got around this particular trait by getting pissed in order to cope with a room full of people). That I love solitude. That I love my friends and family, and enjoy their company, but can feel easily tired if I don’t get that solitude. And that it’s not a 50/50 balance of people/solitude I need. It’s much more heavily weighted in favour of solitude.

Sound familiar? If it does, I can highly recommend Cain’s book. You too may weep with the blissful joy of recognition, of seeing yourself described on the page with understanding and compassion, backed up by serious science. Cain is unequivocal about her belief that the world needs both extroverts and introverts. She doesn’t slam extroverts, as I have jokingly done (sorry to all my lovely extroverted friends, you know I adore you all and am only being lovingly facetious when I say these things). We all serve a purpose in humanity. And although, Cain argues, we live in a deeply extroverted culture, there will always be a very important place for those of us who don’t fit in this world. As introverts many of us have developed coping strategies, ways of surviving in this extrovert world, but it doesn’t make us any less of an introvert. It just means we can be chameleons when necessary.

Although Quiet is essentially a testimonial to the psychology of personality trait studies, it is not bogged down in theory. Cain uses many personal stories and anecdotes to illustrate what the science shows her and this makes the book surprisingly readable. Her ideas on the ‘New Groupthink’ are fascinating. For so long we have assumed that creativity is spawned from thinking in groups, but Cain asserts, quite persuasively, that in fact group work destroys creativity. And if you look at our major institutions – our schools and workplaces – these places are designed around extrovert ideals and the idea that working collaboratively, thinking in groups, comes up with the best results. Intersetingly, plenty of science now disagrees with this. What does this mean for our schools and workplaces?

Who among my friends will enjoy this book: well, the introverts of course. Plus any extroverts who love an introvert and need to understand their loved one better. Plus any extroverts working with introverts who need to understand them better. I guess, anyone interested in the way personality works.

And if you’re not quite sure, check Susan Cain out on Ted Talks. An introvert talking to the world.

Book Review: Arnold Zable’s ‘Violin Lessons’, Text Publishing Melbourne

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Arnold Zable is commonly described as ‘deeply compassionate’ and a ‘master storyteller’ with a ‘remarkable gift’. Despite this, I was reluctant to pick up Violin Lessons for the simple reason that it is a book of true stories. I read fiction. True stories bore me with their focus on truth and reality and bearing witness. To me the need to relay events as they happened is a noose that suffocates the soaring of story. But after hearing Zable speak twice – first at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 2011 and then at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2013 – I could no longer resist. Who was this man with the courage to spend his life in pursuit of the global human story with such determination? I had to find out for myself.

What got me there in the end, and what made me choose Violin Lessons over Zable’s other works, was that the stories all had music as a kernel. Somewhere in each tale is the influence of song. This is something I try to do myself, so I’m always intrigued to know how other writers do this. It’s not a simple thing. Someone once said to me ‘but you don’t play an instrument, how can you write about musicians?’ That old chestnut. How do you write about anything then, outside your own experience? The answer is that you are a writer. An observer. A quiet scholar of the world. But still, something niggles inside me. Am I being authentic when I write about the lives of musicians with only the vantage point of watching that world from its edges? Zable himself has some training as a musician, but I don’t think would claim it as his major skill. Yet he enters this world with humility and observance, and that’s what makes it OK.

The stories themselves are not dry, journalistic rumblings. Neither are they proselytising soap box rants. Zable’s remarkable gift, to my mind, is his ability to see pure story everywhere he goes. The stories span between 1970 and 2011 and reach tiny pockets of the world from Melbourne to Phnom Pen, Saigon, Venice, remote Polish villages, sleepy Greek islands and beyond. These are traveller’s tales, but only in the sense that they are set in places that are not our own. This is not a Lonely Planet guide: it is a map of the human story in all its brutal poignancy, all its pain and suffering, all its strength and courage. But it won’t tell you where to find a cheap cocktail or a two-star bed without bugs.

Zable’s prose is so delicate and intricate that, as a reader, you are forced to pay attention. You lean into the words and therefore the worlds. You feel compelled by the need to make sure you fathom them to their fullest. Reading Zable is like fashioning lace: you approach it with the willingness to be absorbed and you are rewarded more than you could have hoped to be, and I suspect, just like lace, the effect will last a lifetime.

Violin Lessons is not a meditation on the complexity of life – that word implies peace and restfulness and this collection has neither of those qualities. It’s far too honest and far to real – in the best possible way – for that. Thank you Mr Zable.

Who among my friends will like this book? The travellers, the musicians, the literary types, the humanitarians, the biography fans, and anyone who believes in the power of story.

Read more about Violin Lessons, or buy it here.