Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Reviews: What I read this summer

I love summer. I love the (mostly) warm weather with blue-sky days. I love that I get to go on holidays. I love that the days are longer. And I love that I get to wear summer dresses. But mostly I love the fact that I get more time to do one of my favourite things in the whole entire world. Which, you probably won't be surprised to know, is reading lots.

This summer I read everything from confirmed and unconfirmed autobiographies, to books about relationships, education and Australian politics. So here are my thoughts on the books I read over summer. What did you read?

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

There's no other way for me to start this other than to say that Amy Poehler is a complete babe. She's just so sassy and so self-assured, yet she also gives you the impression that she wears her heart on her sleeve. Who wouldn't warm to that sort of person?

In Yes Please, Poehler discusses how she got to where she is in her career today (she worked really hard); talks about being a single mother (it can be really hard); and comments lots on the process of writing a memoir (it's really hard). Yet even though she has worked very hard, what becomes evident is that she does not shy away from challenges - in fact, she embraces them.

Unlike with other memoirs, it's sometimes hard to tell whether Poehler is being truthful or tongue-in-cheek. Which I kind of like, because it keeps you guessing about who the 'real' Amy Poehler is. However the flipside of this is that you end up feeling like you might not actually know Poehler any better after reading her memoir; as if everything in the book is calculated to present a certain image of herself. Which no doubt all memoirs are in some way - it's just that it was a bit more obvious for me in this one than others have been. 

Nevertheless Poehler's can-do, let's-say-yes-and-get-down-and-dirty approach to everything is so inspiring that it makes you want to fist-pump the air and say, 'Yeah, I can do whatever I set my mind to too!' after reading it.

My favourite quotes? 
'Nobody looks stupid when they are having fun.'
'Change is inevitable, get used to it, so just ride the wave.'  
'It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate.'
Poehler has certainly seized her real estate and her memoir is clear evidence of this, despite me being hungry for more.

Class Act, by Maxine McKew

Class Act is an insightful look at how some of Australia's leading schools have achieved being the best schools our country can offer our students. It's a celebration of their achievements, focusing on a handful of schools from all over the country and their leaders who have taken a stand to create positive change.

As someone who is studying teaching it was a really engaging read, exploring many key ideas discussed in my course, such as: how well are we preparing students to cope in a world that increasingly requires them to adapt and use their initiative; the importance of lifting the bar of what's expected and accepted of students at school; and the importance of giving all students access to a rich variety of subjects and resources - not just those who can afford it.

It's always refreshing to see how some of these concepts, which are usually discussed in theory, have been successfully implemented by key change-makers at the schools included in Class Act. What's even more refreshing to read is how many of these schools have beaten the odds in some way to achieve more than what the community thought they and their students were capable of.

My favourite quote?
'If we don't do everything we can to develop the full potential of these children, then the loss to our society it criminal' - interview with John Farrell, Principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Primary School, Sydney, who has embraced high expectations for all of his students, many of who are Indigenous.

Us, by David Nicholls

This is the story of Douglas and Connie, a couple who have been married for twenty-odd years. Their only son, Albie, is about to go to college, and Connie has come to the realisation that she no longer wants to be married to Douglas. This comes as a shock to Douglas, though as the narrative unfolds it becomes more and more evident that there were signs of cracks in their relationship for some time.

Nevertheless Douglas and Connie decide to go on one last trip to Europe together with Albie, who is unsurprisingly reluctant to be dragged along with his clearly unhappy parents. And so the narrative largely focuses on this family's trip in Europe and David's misguided attempts to keep his family together. It also flashes back to when Douglas and Connie first met and what initially drew them together, which I particularly enjoyed reading (I'm a big fan of flashbacks!).

Though all of this might sound cliched and dull (which is what I would have thought had I not seen Nicholls authored it), it's a touching account of a marriage on the decline and what happens when you grow apart from the person you fell in love with and married. So often relationship stories end with the protagonist securing his/her true love, where you're simply left to assume that they'll live happily ever after. Us offers a different narrative.

At times wickedly funny, at others dispiritingly unsettling, Nicholls has created a memorable story with vivid characters that you'll both love and want to strangle.

My Story, by Julia Gillard 

I was really looking forward to this one. Ever since Gillard was horribly mistreated as Prime Minister, I've wanted to know more about this woman who put up with so much disrespect yet didn't let it stop her from achieving so much in her short term as PM. My Story is a thorough account of these achievements, detailing the reasons for many of the policies Gillard's government introduced. It's unfortunate that politicians don't get more of an opportunity to explain their positions while in office, and Gillard's book certainly highlights how petty and embarrassing the reporting of politics is in Australia given how many important changes were actually happening throughout her leadership.

It's unsurprising that Gillard's book also touches on her professional relationship with Kevin Rudd and it's eventual demise, though she does so tactfully and respectfully. She's also happy to admit her flaws, particularly the lack of effectively communicating the Labor leadership change and carbon price to the Australian people. 

Gillard also delves into her mistreatment as Australia's first female Prime Minister. This was the part of the book I was most interested in, as it was Gillard's mistreatment as Prime Minister which initially re-ignited my interest in feminism. While Gillard doesn't convey that she is bitter about what happened, she rightly still questions why more people, particularly men of influence outside of politics, didn't stand up for her and call out more people on their sexism to send the public a message that such disgusting behaviours would not be tolerated. And when she documents just how highly she was scrutinised as a woman Prime Minister - everything from what she wore to her relationship with her partner (subjects that are irrelevant for male politicians) - it's truly alarming that this was happening only a year and a bit ago.

While at times Gillard does let her guard down (for example providing humorous anecdotes about her partner Tim), for the most part her book felt quite reserved and lacked a sense of getting to know Gillard better personally, which is what I was (perhaps erroneously) expecting. But I've not read another politician's biography before so perhaps this is the norm? Or perhaps that was the intention? 

The following line, which is the last one from Gillard's memoir, sums up the book perfectly:
'I hope [this book has]...helped you see not only the world I lived in as prime minster but the vision of our nation I was working towards. Stronger and fairer.' 
My Story certainly had this outcome for me, despite my disappointments with the book. But it is Gillard's story after all, a woman who has had her fair share of being told how she should behave and communicate.

Go Ask Alice, Anonymous

This was a book a friend recommended I read. In fact, she leant me her copy, which had previously been her mother's, which made it an extra special reading experience. It's so fun reading books that are owned by others and thinking about what other adventures and walks of life they've been on, especially when the books themselves are as influential as Go Ask Alice is.

Published in 1971, Go Ask Alice is the story of an anonymous protagonist who inadvertently becomes involved with and subsequently addicted to drugs. The origins and authenticity of this book are still unclear, which adds to its mystery and allure.

It's a story about teenage angst, about the hopelessness of feeling like you don't quite belong anywhere, and about the need to properly talk about and support those who are showing signs that they are slipping away from us. It's a book that will tug at your heartstrings and make you question just how far we as a society have really come in supporting those who need our help the most. All of these themes make Go Ask Alice such a timeless and powerful read.

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