An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: I Don’t Know How She Does it by Allison Pearson

There are plenty of “should”’s in the so-called Mommy Wars, as well as plenty of “can” and “can’t”. Women can have it all. Women can’t have it all, or they can but not at the same time. Women should demand equality. Women should accept reality and take a lesser position while their children are small. No wonder your head starts to spin as soon as you get to a certain age and contemplate the effect that having a family might have upon your career.
Before you run away and hide under your doona I should point out that I don’t have any of the answers, and I don’t claim to. Many of these arguments have merit and ultimately women will make choices based on their own career and family circumstances. That’s why I appreciate contributions to the debate which don’t contain “should”, “can” or “can’t”, but really say “Here’s how I dealt with it, maybe it might be helpful to you in the future.” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent (and controversial) article in The Atlantic fell into this category (despite the deceptive title). I would put Allison Pearson’s I don’t know how she does it in the same category.
It’s old news now, but the book was certainly controversial when it was published in 2002. In my view, that’s due to Pearson’s effort to portray honestly the struggles that women face. It may be fiction, but it’s fiction pretty clearly based on fact and as we all know, the truth can be shocking. Even those of us without children will recognise elements of Kate’s high-stress workplace, and the difficulty of carving out time for family. We might hear an uncomfortable echo in Kate’s efforts to explain to her husband how she really couldn’t refuse to take on extra work, and her frustration at his failure to keep things running smoothly at home.
Of course, there are elements of humour as well. The book opens with Kate “distressing” shop-bought mince pies so that they look suitably home-made. Pearson writes with a light touch and a good dollop of absurdity – which is even more funny because it’s generally only just beyond too-close-to-home.  Take for example her thoughts on being late: “It is possible to get away with being late in the City. The key thing is to offer what my lawyer friend Debra calls a Man’s Excuse. Senior managers who would be frankly appalled by the story of a vomiting nocturnal baby or an AWOL nanny… are happy to accept anything to do with the internal combustion engine” (that is, the car broke down).  The dinner party with the arty childless friends is also gold.
If you don’t like Kate’s tart voice or have no interest in the predicament of working mothers, you probably won’t enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you are (or might someday become) one of those working mothers, you’ll find a lot to like and a lot to laugh at. Most of all, I enjoyed that this was a book that dealt honestly with the difficulties involved in balancing work and family life without trying to provide answers. It’s definitely not a self-help book, although it’s perhaps not entirely fiction either – really, this is a book which broke out from the crowd and created its own genre. I hope one day it will be a valuable historical document of the struggles which women used to face (and face no more) but in the meantime, it’s worth reading for the guilty laughs if nothing else.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Holiday reading

I had the best of intentions, truly. I was going to get ahead of schedule and write some blogs to be posted while I was away soaking up the sun. But funnily enough, things didn't quite work out like that in the mad last minutes before heading off. I have similar good intentions of posting while away (if my patience holds out while pecking letters on a tablet keyboard) but I recognise this may be somewhat optimistic. So instead, I will post my holiday reading list. Hopefully, this has the double benefit of making you salivate while imagining all the juicy reviews to come, while simultaneously obliging me to actually write said reviews. You'll notice it is an interesting combination of high brow (which I really only have the energy to tackle on holidays) and low brow (because they are called 'airplane novels' for a reason).
So far I have made my way through:
Tiziano Terzani, Goodnight Mister Lenin - fascinating book about the effect of the fall of the Soviet Union from a writer who deserves to be better known
Helen Garner, The Spare Room - absolutely stunning, why did no one tell me how brilliant this book is before now?
Allison Pearson, I don't know how she does it - Food for thought, if somewhat depressing for a woman of my age.
Kerry Greenwood, Cooking the Books - Always fun spending a couple of hours with Corinna Chapman (though probably not advisable when hungry)
I am also planning to revisit a few old friends, like Pride and Prejudice and The Road to Coorain. Not to mention the $180 worth of ebooks waiting for attention on my ereader (yes, there was a small online shopping spree at before I left). In summary, I'm hoping to catch up on enough reading to keep the blog turning over for a while!

Friday, July 20, 2012

AWW Book Review: The Spare Room by Helen Garner

For anyone who has had a loved one die of cancer, Helen Garner's The Spare Room is likely to be a painful read. Without knowing the background, I would guess that Garner must have witnessed the difficulties of dealing with a terminally ill person at first hand to have captured such a level of excruciating detail. This book is one of the few I have read which rings absolutely true, crisp and clear in every detail without unnecessary flourishes. Despite the weighty subject matter, it reads easily and it's only at the end that you realise what a small and perfect miracle of a book this is. Garner is truly a master of her craft.

The premise of the book is simple. Helen's friend Nicola, in the final stages of cancer, comes down from Sydney to stay in her spare room while receiving treatment. As so many do, Nicola pins her hopes on alternative therapies and refuses to admit that she is dying. Helen's desire to help her friend is gradually worn down by Nicola's desperate neediness. It's a dilemma familiar to anyone with a seriously ill family member or friend - how to cope when your own needs conflict with the needs of the ill person, and how to deal with the guilt of taking time for yourself.

There's little I can say about this gem of a book, no criticism or suggested improvements. In my view it's a modern classic and deserves to be better known. I do believe that seeing your experience depicted in fiction can be healing and it says something about the quality of this book that I would recommend it to those who have dealt with a terminally ill friend or family member. Perhaps not at the time, or immediately afterwards, but down the track when wounds are not so fresh it can be immensely comforting to know you are not alone. In the end, all any of us can do is our best, even if we tend to expect more of ourselves. This is the heart of the story told so quietly and powerfully in this stunning book.