Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

If sex is dangerous territory for memoir writing then it is surpassed only by motherhood. Mothering is so wrapped up in notions of sacrifice that it can scarcely sustain even the mildest critical eye without some controversy. Rachel Cusk, one of my favourites in this field, is completely vilified for her memoir writing. In fact, a scathing review of her latest memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation won Hatchet Job of the Year. Sometimes the criticism of her motherhood writing is about her taking domestic life too seriously; something that is notably considered “brave” when done by a male author.

But more often it is about Cusk being insufficiently cheerful about domestic life. In depicting herself as a mother in Aftermath, Cusk is devoted to her children but you are still invited to consider her selfish. Cusk describes an argument around shared parenting revealing her own monster. For Cusk to pursue her writing career, her ex-husband had given up his job and become a stay-at-home father. Now that they’re divorcing, Cusk is horrified to discover her rights as a mother aren’t enough to allow her primary care of the children. Cusk was roundly criticised for this moment in the book – oblivious, nasty and domineering.

But you only know this information because Cusk gave it to you. She realises her sense of injustice is perverse. She is exploring a wider point about how ill-equipped early attempts at feminist living are for the emotional bonds of motherhood. She is thinking not just about what the moment means for her but what it means for everyone else, too. If you think she’s selfish because of this anecdote I have to wonder how well you’ve received the gift of confession. Because personal writing, more than anything else is a favour of empathy.

From here.

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Raising modern, indulged children for their own sake can be challenging. In the end, Senior writes, “Mothering and fathering aren’t just things we do. Being a mother or being a father is who we are.” Her most striking observations reveal this existential complexity. “How it feels to be a parent and how it feels to do the quotidian and often arduous task of parenting are two very separate things. ‘Being a parent’ is much more difficult for social science to anatomize.” Social science is especially inadequate to describe the nature of this particular joy, but Senior deploys a novelist’s sensibility in giving evidence of that privileged euphoria, insisting that it is not merely coincident with all the tedious things parents must do, but actually an outgrowth of them. “Freedom in our culture has evolved to mean freedom from obligations,” she observes. “But what on earth does that freedom even mean if we don’t have something to give it up for?”

Senior draws on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the “experiencing self” that exists in the present moment and the “remembering self” that constructs a life’s narrative. “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes — or napping, or shopping, or answering emails — to spending time with our kids. . . . But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one — and nothing — provides us with so much joy as our children. It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” She talks about parents’ pride in their children, not only in their accomplishments but even in their basic development as human beings, their growth into kindness and generosity. “Kids may complicate our lives,” she writes. “But they also make them simpler. Children’s needs are so overwhelming, and their dependence on us so absolute, that it’s impossible to misread our moral obligation to them. . . . We bind ourselves to those who need us most, and through caring for them, grow to love them, grow to delight in them, grow to marvel at who they are.”

“Under Pressure: a review of All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior” in The New York Times by Andrew Soloman.

Complicating matters, mothers assume a disproportionate number of time-sensitive domestic tasks, whether it’s getting their toddlers dressed for school or their 12-year-olds off to swim practice. Their daily routine is speckled with what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call “pressure points,” or nonnegotiable demands that make their lives, as the authors put it, “more frenetic.”
These deadlines have unintended consequences. They force women to search for wormholes in the time-space continuum simply to accomplish all the things that they need to do. In 2011, the sociologists Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers spend, on average, 10 extra hours a week multitasking than do fathers “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.”
When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, it reduces their odds of multitasking by over 30%. Which may explain why, a few years ago, researchers from UCLA found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently” in their close study of 32 families at home. It may also explain why many fathers manage to finish the Sunday paper while their wives do not—they’re not constantly getting up to refill bowls of Cheerios.
Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.

From “Why Mom’s Time is Different to Dad’s Time” by Jennifer Senior in The Wall Street Journal.

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I have to come clean about something – not only have I read this book but I am now recommending it all over the place so I think I really should share it here with you. Don’t judge. Yes, it is a relationship advice book. Yes, I am single and reading a relationship advice book.

I have a huge interest in attachment theory*. That theory has been a key influence on my parenting and the only framework that ever consistently made sense to me in terms of my own instincts and experiences as a mother. Given all of that, it should surprise me not at all that I would also love an attachment theory book on intimate adult relationships. Yet somehow I overlooked this area of writing until now.

Coincidentally, since reading this book I have found myself in conversation with a bunch of friends experiencing various forms of emotional pain that either directly or indirectly involves relationship pain. Listening to them I have been continually reminded of this book and have wondered am I just becoming an evangelist or is this book really so timely that everyone should be reading it. And then I can hold it in no longer and I finally have to confess to these people that I read a relationship advice book and I think they are going to love it. The book is Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. You’ll love it.

Attached has been useful for me in two ways that might help make the case to you. Firstly, if you have ever found yourself in a relationship with a person with avoidant attachment tendencies, even briefly, then you may have found that to be a painful and confusing experience. This is not how you do relationship, you might have thought while with this person. Attached will explain what happened and what was going on in that person’s head, which is great because I am a big fan of resolution and understanding and a person like that will never be able to provide you with it themselves so this book helps you digest what the fuck.

Secondly, Attached has described exactly what mutuality looks like in a relationship and it is something I value very, very highly so just having a clear picture of that is terribly helpful. The book allows you to assess very quickly whether mutuality exists in your relationship and to feel very sure about questioning/ditching it if it does not. And that is surely very good for making more feminist relationships. Better explaining mutuality (or secure attachment behaviour) is particularly important in Western culture where independence is a highly regarded trait but the principles behind it are so poorly understood. Without an awareness of attachment theory many miss the link between secure attachments and genuine, naturally evolving independence. We see this all the time in parenting models, but until reading this book I didn’t realise how much we also make this mistake with relationship models. Because of our arse-about view on independence, we tend to mistake insecure behaviour in the form of avoidant tendencies for independence and to be critical of so called dependent behaviour when really it is often a secure reaction to a threatening situation.

Downsides to the book, there are some. I would have loved Attached to go into even more of the research. I love research. But I realise that that wouldn’t appeal to all readers and a happy medium has to be found to sell books. Having said that, the authors do provide a good overview of attachment theory and a quick glimpse of the studies that support these conclusions. (Most of the studies will be familiar to you if you’ve read attachment theory for parenting). Attached is accessible, one might even say a teensy bit pop psychology in tone and there is a personality quiz in there, but then you are dying to know which type you are so, make peace.  And don’t be deterred, this is not that over-played Myers-Briggs test stuff. The book passes my feminist test in that it debunks sexist stereotypes and doesn’t encourage women to see relationship work as their sole responsibility (though a bigger representation of queer relationships in the case studies would have been beneficial), and it happily provides an absolutely scathing take-down of the Rules of Dating approach to relationship advice.

One final thing. A friend I recommended the book to happens to have avoidant attachment tendencies and I think he found it a valuable but difficult read because avoidants really aren’t seen as the fun types to be involved with in this book. So, I guess this might be a tough read if you’re coming from that direction.. but then the potential rewards to you are great.

* The best book by far on attachment theory and parenting is Becoming Attached by Robert Karen.

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ab good mother myth

Here I am with a copy of The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, a fantastic new anthology that includes one of my essays in it. If you’re in the United States of America then you can get along to one of the author events for the launch – they’re happening in New York, Chicago and Portland at the moment. Otherwise, here is The Washington Post talking about the book, Publishers Weekly and Brain, Child.

Next time I really must smile in the photograph because I’m very happy about this book.



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Rachel Syme in The New Yorker notices that Leo DiCaprio happens to play very similar roles in two zeitgeist films in the same year, The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street and writes a thought-provoking film review in response.

It’s hard to care for the careless, unless someone like Nick Carraway is there to tell us that we should. In “Wolf,” the only person who tells you to invest your time in Belfort is Belfort, directly to the camera, and all too quickly that time starts to feel like a long con, handcuffs binding you to a nauseating joyride with a hedonistic sociopath. Women mean nothing to him besides conquest and sex, empty vessels to flaunt like his elephantine yacht. Daisy Buchanan is herself a fairly empty vessel (and Fitzgerald knew this, admitting that he could never infuse true passion into her affair with Gatsby and that the book suffered for it), but at least we get the sense that she matters to Gatsby, even if what he loves never existed.

I’m a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald so this was always going to get my interest but aren’t you glad I’m not just photo-blogging here now?

Link via Kerryn Goldsworthy.

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God, I love Cusk’s writing.

Here, as elsewhere, the appearance of honesty, the willingness to “own up” to certain unorthodoxies, merely conceals a deeper strain of social competitiveness. The “good” mother, with her fixed smile, her rigidity, her goody-goody outlook, her obsession with unnecessary hygiene, is in fact a fool. It is the “bad” mother, unafraid of a joke and a glass of wine, richly self-expressive, scornful of suburban values, who is in reality good.

A review of Confessions of a Bad Mother by Stephanie Calman in New Statesman.

Enright is a patient writer. Her real triumph, as she plots her slow transformation into the mother of two children, is to capture the delicate sense of parenthood as something that, for all its frequent impositions, stems so profoundly from the self that it is almost an act of reading, of self-interpretation.

A review of Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Anne Enright in New Statesman. 


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Amazing Babes: A Picture Book for Kids & Adults by Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee, and published by Scribe, is a truly gorgeous picture book. Reviewing this book with my two children, a girl and boy aged eight and four years respectively, was a complete delight.

The hard cover picture book features twenty feminist icons. Each icon is beautifully drawn by Grace Lee and their picture is accompanied by a simple statement highlighting a personal trait of theirs that will most inspire children. These statements express charming wishes like, “I want the curiosity of Hedy Lamarr” and “I want to find ways to explore like Frida Kahlo”.

The range of women included is impressively broad and crosses from the most contemporary, like Tavi Gevinson and Malala Yousafzai, to others from history such as Emma Goldman. Notably for me, the book also includes a couple of Australian figures (eg. Mum Shirl and Miles Franklin).  Amazing Babes manages to avoid the disappointment of so many other feminist texts which all but ignore women from outside the Anglosphere, so women like Vandana Shiva and Aung San Suu Kyi are also here.

There’s a fair bit of diversity in terms of age, race, nationality and area of expertise across the icons profiled but no list of feminist icons is going to meet everyone’s approval.  I am sure some readers will wonder why particular favourites weren’t included, though the book encompasses big stars like Gloria Steinem and Audre Lorde, and given the age of mothers with young children, Kathleen Hanna is certain to be a popular inclusion.

The style of illustration greatly appealed to my children, who as I noted above, range in age from 4 to 8 years. They found the book enormously intriguing and I would encourage parents to offer it both to sons as well as daughters. In fact, the author of the book originally wrote the collection for her own son. The beauty of this book is that it can be read to children of various ages with younger children simply enjoying the illustrations and growing familiarity with famous names and older children being able to go on and research further those women who particularly inspire them.

At the back of the book is a full list of the twenty icons and a more complete description of each woman and her accomplishments. I have only one criticism of the book and it is with this section. This text is not written in an always accessible way for young readers who would otherwise be drawn to the book. For instance, “While working as a feminist, Miles also devoted herself to cultivating a uniquely Australian voice within Australian literature” – it’s not exactly a jargonistic sentence but it is beyond a lot of primary school beginner readers. The descriptions could also have benefited from a pronunciation guide for the women’s names, some of which won’t be immediately familiar to all readers. However, this is a small bone to pick with what is really a very special book. There are simply not enough of these kinds of books being written for children and I hope this one finds plenty of success.

And finally… there are three copies available for give-away to readers of blue milk, if you’re interested in entering the competition simply leave a comment below (with a valid email address) and I will randomly draw three names within the fortnight. The publishers have put no limits on regions for entry so please feel free to enter regardless of which country you live in.

In accordance with disclosure guidelines, please note that I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher.

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From the terribly beautiful Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. A novel written in prose that I am currently reading and loving:


Tuesdays were best.


Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon’s father and brother went to hockey practice.

Geryon and his mother had supper alone.

They grinned at each other as night climbed ashore. Turned on all the lights

even in rooms they weren’t using.

Geryon’s mother made their favourite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast

cut into fingers for dipping.

Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice.

They took supper trays into the living room

Geryon’s mother sat on the rug with magazines, cigarettes, and telephone.

Geryon worked beside her under the lamp.

He was gluing a cigarette to a tomato. Don’t pick your lip Geryon let it heal.

She blew smoke out her nose

as she dialed. Maria? It’s me can you talk? What did he say?

. . . .

Just like that?

. . . .


. . . .

That’s not freedom it’s indifference

. . . .

I’d throw the bum out

. . . .

That’s melodrama – she stubbed her cigarette hard – why not have a nice bath

. . . .

Yes dear I know it doesn’t matter now

. . . .

Geryon? fine he’s right here working on his autobiography

. . . .

No it’s a sculpture he doesn’t now how to write yet

. . . .

Oh this and that stuff he finds outside Geryon’s always finding things

aren’t you Geryon?

She winked at him over the telephone. He winked back using both eyes

and returned to work.

He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair

and was gluing these to the top of the tomato.

Outside the house a black January wind came flattening down from the top of the sky

and hit the windows hard.

The lamp flared. It’s beautiful Geryon, she said hanging up the telephone.

It’s a beautiful sculpture.

She put he hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato.

And bending she kissed him once on each eye

then picked up her bowl of peaches from the tray and handed Geryon his.

Maybe next time you could

use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten-dollar for the hair, she said as they began to eat.

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Of course you are that keen that you wish to know about pre-ordering the anthology, The Good Mother Myth with my piece in it, along with pieces from Christy Turlington Burns, Jessica Valenti, Jennifer Baumgardner, Soraya Chemaly, KJ Dell’ Antonia, Deborah Siegel, T.F. Charlton and many others from either Amazon or indie bookshops.

Of course you are.

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“My greatest enemies are Women and the Sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadow of men and are nothing compared to them, and the Sea because it has always frustrated me, destroying what I have built, washing away what I have left, wiping clean the marks I have made.”

The Wasp Factory is one of my favourite novels. It’s a wonderfully dark story and an absolutely fascinating exploration of misogyny.

Farewell Iain Banks.

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