• 5 awesome books about money – for women, by women

    5 must read books about money for women

    I’ve been on a bit of a roll lately devouring books about money and career as I get closer to exiting the 20-something age bracket and ponder what my 30s could be like.

    In particular, I’ve been focusing on personal finance/career books by women. Here are some of the best I’ve read:

    Secrets of Six-Figure Women: Surprising Strategies to Up Your Earnings and Change Your Life by Barbara Stanny

    Things Barbara Stanny and I have in common: We were female writers who didn’t earn huge amounts. Things we don’t have in common: Rich families, trust funds.

    That aside, this is not a book about Stanny, it’s about the many high-earning women she interviewed and the insights she has distilled into 11 chapters in Secrets of Six-Figure Women. Even though she began writing it before the GFC, her foreword notes that these women either survived the recession well, or were able to rebuild despite knockbacks. And as we find out, resilience is a key trait among high earners, among others. They aren’t groundbreaking secrets, but they are important reminders, and I suspect this is the kind of book you could come back to over the years for a fresh dose of motivation.

    Read it if you: Struggle with underearning (want to earn more, and are capable of earning more) and having belief in yourself.

    Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads: True Stories of Friends, Family, and Financial Ruin by Valerie Rinds

    I had a bit of a wakeup call in 2015 when I realised I was putting other people’s happiness ahead of my own, and making myself miserable. It was also severely damaging my own financial situation. I really needed to read this book back then – if only I had known about it!

    Gold Diggers and Deadbeat Dads mixes Rinds’ own story of financial hardship with other true tales of people who faced financial ruin thanks to the wrongdoing of other people. It’s entertaining, engaging and educational. And it’s a cautionary tale – choose your partners wisely, because they can make or break you financially. Rinds plays it straight – there’s no judgement here, just real stories told by real people.

    I think there’s often a fine line between victim blaming and accepting responsibility for your own choices; it’s definitely one I have struggled with myself. If you have caretaking and enabling tendencies, you may very well find loved ones taking advantage of you financially. It may not seem like it at first, it may not feel like it, and it’s an ugly, painful thing to wake up to.

    Read it if you: Struggle with financially supporting other people in your life and have trouble saying no.

    The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness by Bari Tessler

    Caveat: The Art of Money is a little hippy dippy, particularly to start off with. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it doesn’t put you off, then you might just find this a refreshing read.

    What spoke to me was the heavy emphasis on the emotional aspects of money. The first half is devoted to untangling your relationship with money, and the second tackles more practical aspects of money management, interwoven with the values and emotions that are all tied up in what we bring to the table when it comes to personal finance.

    I came to this book with a certain amount of regret and baggage that’s been weighing me down, and somehow I felt lighter for having made my way through it. Tessler’s incredibly compassionate approach and frameworks are the polar opposite of tough love – more like a warm bath or sustained hug. Sometimes, that’s just what you need.

    Read this if you: Struggle with bad money juju that you need to get past and let go of

    When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women by Farnoosh Torabi

    It sucks that books like this exist, but IMO they are a necessary addition to the landscape. I will say right now that I didn’t find any new practical strategies in here, but it was at times thought provoking and most importantly, it brought voices to the forefront that are otherwise stifled.

    In an ideal world, it WOULDN’T matter who earned how much. But we live in the real world, with flawed workplaces and human relationships. How we feel about these things matters, just as much as how we deal with them.

    And that’s where I got the most value out of this book: reading stories of other women struggling with inequality, resentment, and navigating complicated dynamics. The emotional turmoil, I would argue, is the hardest to reckon with, and this book is a reminder that you are not alone.

    Read it if you: Struggle with being the breadwinner (there’s no shame in that)


    What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know by Joan C Williams & Rachel Dempsey

    I am not in law (or finance, or consulting, or any of those types of industries) and this book is definitely more targeted toward women in similar fields. I also count myself fortunate to not really have personally encountered sexism in the workplace so far. However, I know it exists and I have seen others run into it. And as I progress in my career and start thinking about how having a family might mesh with that, I found it interesting to read about the extra tightropes that working mothers walk. After all, career progression underpins finances, for most of us.

    What Works For Women At Work identifies the four main issues women encounter in the workplace – Prove It Again, the Tightrope, the Maternal Wall and the Tug of War – backed by research. It’s non judgemental and tries to take a big picture view as much as possible: it’s not just you, the system is actually broken. The advice on actually dealing with those biases is a little light, but as we all know, there are no quick and easy fixes in this area. We can do as much as we can as individuals, but real change and real solutions go beyond that.

    Read this if you: Struggle with progressing in the workforce and wonder why you aren’t getting ahead

  • When She Makes More: 3 outtakes from this breadwinner

    What happens when she earns more money

    I put off reading When She Makes More by Farnoosh Torabi until now, because of the criticism I’d heard about this book: patronising, sexist, heavy-handed on the stereotypes.

    There’s some truth to those points, but you know what? I loved this book. LOVED it. I felt so much less alone reading When She Makes More and honestly, I wish I’d read it earlier when I was really in a bad place. I just devoured all of the stories of the couples she interviewed. It was incredibly validating, and that for me was the real value in When She Makes More – just knowing that others out there totally got it, went through similar experiences, and recognise that it IS hard.

    While I didn’t come away with any groundbreaking insights or practical tips, I appreciated what I got out of When She Makes More. Based off the pages I nodded at/bookmarked the most, here are the key points that most resonated with me.

     

    Who we are

    Of course there are thriving couples out there with female breadwinners, and that’s not really who this book is for. It’s more likely for those of us who fall into the category defined by the divorce lawyer Torabi quotes in one of the chapters: the husband who sort of has a job but isn’t trying very hard to generate more income, or is self-employed but not really working.

    Why it’s different for women

    The stress we feel as primary income generators is just not the same.

    We live longer. Any financial decisions need to factor this in – how might they affect the stability of your future if you outlive him?

    It’d be remiss not to mention the gender pay gap in here, too. Our earnings underpin everything. Yet on average we tend to earn lower incomes than our male equivalents.

    If you’re not planning on kids, this isn’t so applicable – but the question of starting a family is where it really starts to get complicated.

    If the household is dependent on your income, then there isn’t even a hypothetical choice about whether to scale back or stop work. Plus, that’s assuming everything goes smoothly. What if you have health complications during pregnancy or after birth – or the baby does? And what if you want to take a longer maternity leave than normal? What if your mindset totally shifts after birth and you decide you want to be primary caregiver? There are so many unknowns.

    Obviously, the ideal would be if both partners earned an income that was individually sufficient to support the household. If that’s not the case then there may need to be some serious conversations and forward planning – whether that means working toward a plan where he can bring in more income, or something else that works for the couple.

    In many of the couples cited, the woman had a seriously high powered, high paying C-suite job, and presumably this was less of a concern than in couples where the woman earned more but not necessarily a huge salary. At a high enough income you’d at least be able to bank a lot to hedge against those hypotheticals.

    Torabi writes that female breadwinners with a dependent family are living in a high stakes world – it’s vital to remain sought after in your work, to learn to navigate the biases and double standards at play, and build the reputation and professional capital that will serve you well later on.

    Another point that probably belongs in here: the so-called second shift. Even when the woman makes more, even if the man doesn’t work, she almost always puts in a significant amount of housework/childcare. Even when the financial roles are reversed, the roles at home do not typically fully reverse.

    The risks

    Resentment, resentment, resentment. Particularly when paired with the point above re: equality of housework. Resentment is the most dangerous feeling of all, particularly when it leads to wondering if you’re better off without him. (And maybe in some cases you are. It wasn’t until I actually left that he bucked up and started to get his act together.)

    “The longer the woman has to support her lackadaisical husband, the quicker her feelings of frustration move into the bitter zone, after which the resentment takes over,” Torabi writes. It’s common for breadwinning mothers especially to feel at least some resentment, guilt and anger.

    Female breadwinners are more likely to be unhappy, feel pressured to work less and even get divorced, she says. There’s the pressure to keep your job, the worry of having everything depend on you, and the desire to have an equal relationship with your partner.

    Let’s face it, this permeates every facet of a relationship. When we talk about money, Torabi points out, we’re actually talking about our entire lives. Money affects how each of you feels about one another and about your relationship – and it also directly influences the frequency of and satisfaction with your sex life. (Can confirm. Broke sex is bad sex.)

    If the guy has made financial mistakes in the past and is yet to prove he can be financially responsible, it can be difficult to trust him. Often it leads to mothering and controlling in an effort to remedy that, which sucks for both parties. I never liked being the mean/boring one saying no – we can’t afford that – or assuming responsibility for handling all the finances, or feeling unable to rely on anyone but myself. When a partnership turns more into something resembling parenting, it’s a bad sign.

    Often couples that struggle the most are those whose incomes were fairly equal until he lost his job. But whatever the cause, what matters is how we cope in response. And figuring that out takes time. Financial and emotional equanimity are moving targets in any relationship, Torabi says, and this is so true in my experience. Ultimately, it’s a process.  




    One last point I liked in the book and would love to see play out: the suggestion for a shift in the campaign for paid parental leave that puts the focus on the benefits for families. How could anyone be against working families?

    But ultimately, the biggest strength of When She Makes More is that it’s not too concerned with how things should be; it’s about how they are in reality, and how to cope with that. Yes, things should be perfectly equal at work and at home. It shouldn’t matter who makes more, practically or emotionally speaking. BUT. We live in an imperfect world and we as humans are flawed – we just have to work within these constraints the best we can.


     

  • How To Worry Less About Money: 3 things I took away

    The most refreshing thing about How to Worry Less About Money is the author’s unflinching observation of how money affects relationships. In this book, John Armstrong relates this back to his own marriage.

    “My own experience is that money worries can cause terrible conflicts in relationships. I fear I have damaged Helen’s life by not making more money. And there are stylistic clashes: I like being lavish; she’s much more restrained. For instance, I like the idea of going to fancy restaurants; she prefers the modest family-run place round the corner, or chicken soup at home. (And this is all the harder to deal with because our earnings point in the opposite directions to these personal tastes).”
    Well, I’m the Helen in my life, and I can vouch for the fact that I have felt resentful many a time. I wish that weren’t true, but I am human, and perhaps not always a very good one. This is us, down to a T, especially the incongruence between tastes and earnings.  I would be curious to hear Helen’s viewpoint.

    Money and marriage

    Armstrong points out that in the world of Jane Austen, having enough money is taken very seriously (and rightly so!) as a necessary condition of happy marriage. Money reduces the fragility of a relationship, and makes people more relaxed. Money buys luxury, privacy and  stimulation. Money is for some people an aphrodisiac.

    All of these things resonate so hard (perhaps not exactly the last one, but financial stress is a huge turn off and therefore lack of money is definitely a turn off).

    Alas, there are no true solutions offered up, despite the practical promise offered in the title. This is a philosophical read about how we think about money, relate to it, the space it occupies in our minds and lives.

    It’s a book about money worries, as opposed to money troubles.

    Money troubles vs money worries

    Money troubles, Armstrong contends, are urgent. They call for direct action and can only be resolved in one of two ways: either you gain access to more money or you go without something else.

    Money worries, conversely, are about imagination and motions, not just what is happening now. Money worries often say more about the worrier than the world. They’re about what’s going on in your head not just in your bank account.

    The meaning of money

    When you strip money right back to the fundamentals, it is just a resource – a means of exchange.

    “In other words money is an instrument … Ultimately the task in life is to translate efforts and activities that are inherently worthwhile into possessions and experiences that are themselves of lasting and true value.

    “That is the ideal money cycle. Our relationship with money becomes unhealthy when we remove it from this cycle. That happens when we stop seeing money as potential possessions and experiences – but rather see possessions and experiences as potential money.”

    We’re all bombarded these days with the reminder to DO WHAT YOU LOVE. Armstrong acknowledges that we need to make enough money to meet our needs and we also need to do things that help us make sense of who we are and contribute to collective good.

    You can escape by not caring about meaning. And you can escape by not caring about having much money.  But a lot of people care about both.”

    * * *

    If you know roughly what to expect going in, this is a great read. I related to so much of it, I was constantly nodding along and found myself bookmarking what seemed like every other page.

    If you’ve read it, what did you think?

    Share the Wealth Sunday

  • 10 books that left a big impression on me

    top 10 books that left an impression on me

    When Ms Pear first tagged me in this, I seized up. How could I possibly come up with just 10 books that have affected me? Or, if I took the tack of choosing books that were truly life changing, how could I come up with that many?

    Anyway, I decided to go for a mix – some books that truly changed my life, and some books that affected me in one way or another.

    Sloppy Firsts / Second Helpings (and the rest of the Jessica Darling books) by Megan McCafferty

    Jessica Darling is my smarter, wittier alter ego and I wish I could be her, or have her as a best friend, at least. Our lives have had a few weird parallels, and I kind of think of her as my fictional guide in regard to adolescence/adulthood.

    If you’re cool with YA fiction featuring an overly precocious narrator, firmly dated pop culture references and the most hilarious, original acronyms ever, give the series a go.

    Related: Some of my all-time favourite books

    How to be a Woman – or anything by Caitlin Moran, really

    I wish I had a quarter of Caitlin Moran’s badassery and way with words. I find it basically impossible to disagree with her on any of the big issues. She has a way of boiling down things to the most basic level – I have never read a more relatable explanation of feminism.

    Related: Just call me a Caitlin Moran groupie

    The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

    Is this book a load of bollocks? More or less. But regardless, this book changed my life. It convinced me to start trying to adopt a more positive everyday outlook on life, and that has done wonders for my general happiness.

    Related: The best decision I ever made

    Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher

    A good friend’s mother lent this to us and we’ve just never gotten around to returning it. If you’ve ever thought that there’s no way you could imagine being in the same line of work for your whole life – if you get bored easily and struggle with traditional work/career structures – you need to read this. There are many flavours of ‘scanners’, as she dubs them, from the dabblers to the serial experts. It turned me on to the idea of good-enough jobs that subsidise the overall life you want to lead, and parlaying diverse, transferable skillsets into many types of work. Not so much for me, but certainly for T.

    Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

    I genuinely really like (even love) my work and early retirement isn’t a goal of mine. That said, financial stability (financial independence would be grand, but not realistic unless I wanted to go into something lucrative and could actually succeed at it) is certainly a top priority of mine. So while not all of this book really appealed or applied to me, it got me thinking about values, ultimately, and how personal finance fits into your broader life – the one you’re living, the one you aspire to live.

    Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

    My parents were a weird mix – part tiger in regard to the strictness and high expectations, but minus some of the filial piety baggage. They were still too far down the tiger spectrum for me, and based on my own experience growing up plus what is outlined in this book, I know I will be extremely sensitive about knowing how far to push with my own kids. Everyone is different, and parenting needs to take that into account. I think this book demonstrates that sharply – balance, as with everything else in life, is usually the key.

    Related: Chewing over Tiger Mother

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

    This book had me enthralled from the very start, and bawling at its conclusion. Although it is far from original – the tale of a young girl whose life is derailed by war – and gets off to a slower start, I found it utterly flawless.

    The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

    Something about the wrenching descriptions of wartorn Russia and this improbable love story grabbed me by the heart. I think my desire to visit St Petersburg stems solely from this novel.

    Related: Reviewing The Bronze Horseman trilogy

    Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    This is a story, as you might know, built on manipulation and lies. I thought the structure was bold and gripping, but beyond that, it also really drove home for me how subjective the truth can be. How the two parties in a relationship can perceive things very differently. And I think that’s a good thing for anybody to understand.

    The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

    Now, I wouldn’t say this was a straight five-star book for me. I wasn’t in love with the prose, let alone the characters. But it’s the themes of the content that lingered with me long after. What is it to be ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’, and what is that actually worth? How do you know if you’ve chosen the right person, and what if you wind up with the wrong one? Why do some creatives succeed and other don’t? How does money affect relationships? What makes a good friend vs a good lover? How do you cope with feeling jealous of your closest friends?

    What books have made the biggest impact on you?

  • Books for intelligent people

    BOOKS FOR INTELLIGENT PEOPLEWouldn’t that be a great title for a series of posts?

    I must confess I didn’t do a whole lot of reading in 2013. So when we were volunteering in Italy, I binged on our host’s collection. Here’s a few titles in particular that stood out:

    Blink – Malcolm Gladwell

    Gladwell tries to make dense topics accessible to your everyday Jane and Joe, and does a darn good job of it.

    Blink tackles the subject of gut instinct and first impressions, which most of us recognise the importance and impact of. T is big on spontaneity and going with your first instinct, while I agonise endlessly over the smallest decisions. He tends to make snap decisions, while I second guess myself. I think it’s fair to say each approach has its merits, based on the situation at hand. Gladwell seems to agree

    If you’re interested in Gladwell’s work, you might find these two links interesting:

    Malcolm Gladwell Is America’s Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer

    Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That’s Unfortunate)

    (hint: they’re about the worth of pop psychology and Gladwell’s own contributions to the field)

    Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice – Jack Holland

    As if the current state of inequality wasn’t bad enough! Reading back through the centuries of horror inflicted upon women will twist your gut with rage and disbelief. I found the chapter about the cultural evolution of Mary (as in mother of God) particularly fascinating. If you’re religious, you might not like it quite as much

    It is almost entirely Western-centric, although to be honest, I wasn’t too fussed about that, because I’m not sure how many more pages of injustice I could tolerate. Oh, the things carried out in the name of religion, entertainment and democracy…

    Some excellent quotes include:

    “The right to choose is always the key to progress for women, as it is for men.”

    “Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”

    “The idea of women having sex without risking pregnancy is deeply disturbing to the vision of women’s role that Western civilization has inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

    The European Dream – Jeremy Rifkin

    Reading this in the wake of the GFC (it was written way before the economic crisis, well before Europe’s crash) was an interesting exercise. It examines the differences between American and European lifestyles and culture, and since we were about to go straight from Europe to North America, it was especially pertinent for me.

    From American settlement by some pretty hardcore religious types to the current state of play, it fleshed out my understanding of this country. (Aside: I get why the USA is so heavily religious. But I’ve always thought this was slightly incongruous in a sense, given that the American Dream is all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It seems to me that atheism would be more compatible with the bootstrapping philosophy…)

    What struck me most in this book was the point that one area in which the cultures sharply diverge is in relation to the death penalty. While guns and healthcare (and more recently, reproductive rights) usually dominate the discourse, of all the things us non-Americans are united on, being vehemently against the death penalty is also right up there – it’s just not such a hot button topic, I guess, when there are so many other wrongs to keep us occupied.

    Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium – Carl Sagan

    Confession: I only had a very, very vague idea of who Carl Sagan actually was. When I spotted this spine among the shelves, I picked it up. And right away, Sagan seriously blew my mind. This line about fossil fuels made me wonder why I’d never made the linguistic connection before:

    “Coal, oil and gas are called fossil fuels, because they are mostly made of the fossil remains of beings from long ago. The chemical energy within them is a kind of stored sunlight originally accumulated by ancient plants. Our civilization runs by burning the remains of humble creatures who inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years before the first humans came on the scene. Like some ghastly cannibal cult, we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives.”

     Colour me creeped out. Thank you Carl for enlightening me on yet another truly messed up aspect of modern culture.

     What good books have you read lately – smartypants books or otherwise?

  • My lifelong affair with reading

    i love reading books colour coded bookshelfThe single biggest influence in my life to date has been, without a doubt, reading.

    Books – the Chalet School, Famous Five, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew – make up some of my earliest childhood memories. In summer, when I would be sent to bed when it was still light outside, I’d pull out a book once my door was shut and devour as many chapters as I could before dark set in.

    I can honestly say I’ve learned almost everything in life through reading, starting with books, then moving on to magazines and blogs.

    I learned about friendships, and romantic relationships, and what I should expect from them. Most of it was poor, and inaccurate, but there were certainly nuggets of wisdom among the chaff.

    I learned about work, and careers, and formed my own opinions on what’s right for me and what most of us can realistically expect from adult life.

    I’ve learned about writing, reporting, and later blogging, and if it weren’t for reading, I don’t see how I could ever have decided I wanted to become a writer myself.

    I’ve learned about location independence, long term travel, solopreneurship and alternatives to the traditional life trajectory.

    It makes me sad when people tell me they don’t like to read. I love the written word more passionately than almost anything in the world, so I take this almost as a personal insult. Books have opened up so many worlds to me, and that joy is something I wish for everyone else.

    Literacy is a wonderful thing.

    (Last year’s Valentine’s post // And one from the year before)

  • 2012 in review: The literary edition

    I am a freak of the 2.0 genereation.

    I despise the notion of e-books and refuse to read books on a screen (the exception being a few classics I loaded onto my iPad for free before leaving for our South Island trip. I only finished one while we were away and I’m slowly making my way through the rest of them now. I do enjoy being able to look up the definition of a word right there and then on the page, but physical books and I shall not be parted.) I already spend at least 8 hours a day staring intently into a computer screen, and have no desire to increase that time.

    Yet I am not a book buyer. I am an unapologetic library slut. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to accumulate a small pile of novels by my bed, and it’s making me antsy. Books are bulky and annoying (I like to borrow them, read them, and hustle them back out of my house).

    Aside from books on loan from the public library, these books are:

    • Freebies from work – some I reviewed, some I did not
    • Lent to me by a friend
    • Gifts (one, to be precise)

    I need to clean these out.

    Seeing as we’re getting close to the end of 2012, I thought I might recap some of my more memorable reads of the year.

    I read quite a bit of non fiction. Among this category, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother squeaks in as the most impactful of them all. Later I found out that Sophia, the older daughter (beautiful! accomplished! younger than me!), has a blog, which I promptly subscribed to. And as you do, I did a spot of Googling and was dumbfounded by some of the vitriol aimed at this family – the girls, too – unbelievable. This was an unsolicited review copy (woop!) and I actually want to keep this book around, that much did I enjoy it. I can only hope to blend the best of Chinese and western parenting with my kids – the discipline, the drive, with individualism and creativity. That may be a tall ask.

    I also loved Caitlin Moran’s memoir How to Be a Woman on so many levels (Moranthology, a collection of her published work, also rocked it for me), and Mindy Kaling’s (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?) for sheer likeability and entertainment. See this post.

    As memoirs go, The Glass Castle stirred up a maelstrom of emotions; hope for the human spirit and despair at the very worst of humanity. Heartbreak for the Walls children and the countless others like them out there. Jeannette’s tale is beautifully, blamelessly and unflinchingly told. You must, must read it.

    Other non-fiction included Gilmore Girls and the Politics of Identity. Meh. I had high hopes for insightful analysis into one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and there were a few essays worth a read, but overall it was pretty weak.

    Moving into fiction territory…

    O (a presidential novel) may have received bad reviews, but I rated it four stars on Goodreads. I am neither a political buff nor a hardcore news buff, but I guess we media types like to read about ourselves and our industry. O was published back in 2011, a projection of what the 2012 battle could look like, but I read it in September 2012 – an interesting time, obviously, with campaigning actually underway. (And immediately after finishing it, I came across this Vanity Fair profile of the real Obama. All very synchronous.) Obviously the author couldn’t have anticipated Romney, exactly; his Republican nominee is Tom Morrison, a military type with an innate understanding of human psychology, who doesn’t want to play dirty, and is a formidable opponent. Sadly, there is no definitive end; this is  a novel about the process, but the narrative is the really interesting part for the junkies – the subtle power plays, the inner workings of campaigns and government and the news media.

    Its faults? Look, the wee ears around the O on the cover were cute, but the  references to the president as only O got ridonkulous real fast, particularly in the news stories toward the end. The fictional liberties taken to humanise the president were hardly worth blinking at, and overall the characterisation is dreadful (weak, or in fact, non-existent). The thinly veiled characters based on real people occasionally were genuinely amusing (Palin, Huffington) but the treatment of women was unspeakably medieval. Of course both the beautiful, tough journalist and the sexy young volunteer would both sleep with the top O campaign staffer. Of course. At least he gets his just deserts in the end, and to the author’s credit, Regan also gets shot down very sharply by an actress at a political dinner, though I’m not sure who she was modelled on – Angelina Jolie?

    A Woman in Berlin trod a similar line as an anonymous diary of a journalist in WWII, as did Night by Elie Wiesel. Both are stark in their simplicity, but a simply told tale was probably the best way to try and convey firsthand the atrocities of war. In the former, the women who were able to struck up alliances with Russian soldiers, who acted in part as their patrons, protecting them from rape by soldiers and bringing them essentials. In the latter, they experienced the horror of the Holocaust first hand, shipped into a concentration camp, mined for gold fillings, forced to turn upon one another.

    Novel-wise, carrying on in the same vein, Fatherland offered a peek into a parallel universe, one in which Hitler triumphed and continued to hold Germany in his grip and keep the Holocaust under wraps from the rest of the world (see earlier review).

    Life of Pi was a slightly frustrating read. Yes, gripping. Yes, fantastical. But the reason academic analysis doesn’t push my buttons is I’m really just a literary dilettante. I don’t like to thrash out symbolism and themes to death. This is one of those books. You can read it at its surface or accept the underlying tale it hints at, which is too terrible to accept. So while I loved this as a story, I didn’t love the work that goes into interpreting it. Absolutely a must read, however.

    Love in the Time of Cholera reminded me of a Woody Allen film. Hateful characters I didn’t give a shit about. A spot of casual rape and pedophilia tossed in right at the end. Yes, it left that much of a nasty impression on me that I’m mentioning it. Would love to hear your take.

    And last of all, I finally clued into Jane Austen with Emma and Pride and Prejudice – which I loved! Where have you been all my life? (I know, I know – I was too cool for the classics and looked down my nose at them. How wrong I was on this count.)

    What books stood out to you this year?

  • It’s official: Just call me a Caitlin Moran groupie (or, Moranthology rocks my socks)

    Regular readers may well recall my professed love for Caitlin Moran. Incredibly hilarious, with a too-extreme-to-be-true life story, with a Tumblr devoted to her utterings…  she is funnier, sharper, sassier and all around awesomer than I could ever wish to be. I would be the sidekick best friend to her wild-haired heroine, if that.

    When I realised there was a copy of her new book, Moranthology, in the office, I was prepared to arm wrestle my editor for first rights. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. I called second dibs, and shortly after – just as I was about to tweet about the whole saga – she came up behind me and placed the hallowed tome on my desk. MY BOSS > YOUR BOSS.

    moranthology book reviewMoranthology (see the wordplay there?) is a collection of her published writing. To date, I’ve read very few of Moran’s columns, essays and interviews. This is because most of them (if not all?) are for The Times, which does NOT put its content online for free, and this fact warrants an entire column, which is included within Moranthology. However, I think it’s safe to say hers is writing I would pay to read. Moranthology well and truly cemented my inkling that I can only hope to one day be as witty and insightful as this lady.

    Her interviews with celebrities are both amusing and touching (Gaga, Keith Richards, and a guy I’d never heard of before who deep down thinks if he does well enough, his dead mother will come back). Her TV and pop culture columns are delightfully snarky, without resorting to outright bitchery. And she’s also surprisingly deft at tackling serious issues with compassion. Mental illness. Poverty. (Both of which she has first hand experience of.)

    I loved this passage from Frozen Planet: A world of fatal ice cream (a review of David Attenborough’s show):

    “[Frozen Planet] shows us what we will lose in terms of the awe and beauty of these places – the magic of being on a planet topped and tailed with these outrageous landscapes; white like teeth and cloud and pearl; wild like ecstasy, or the Moon. Heaped, blown, billowing snow: a world of fatal ice cream, punctuated by volcanoes and aqua melt-lakes, and penguins leaping out of wave-foam like girls out of a cake.”

    But I’d argue that Moran is at her best when tackling what you’d call pink issues. (Female issues, obvs. Women’s talk [said in stiff-lipped British male voice].) Burqas and abortion get the Moran treatment with the usual dose of levity, but she also manages to genuinely argue her point at the same time. Making light of something in a light-hearted manner while simultaneously getting across a serious message is MUCH easier said than done, I can tell you. I especially appreciate her brand of what I’d call working-class feminism. It is accessible and sensible. Academic feminism is wonderful – but let’s face it, very few of us care for it.

    And just when you think she can’t get any better, she busts out something like MTV Hoes:

    “When I was a teenager, all my pop heroes were Britpop, and grunge – unisex jeans and sneakers for all. I was raised with the expectation that, if I wanted to, I could sell twenty million albums with my upper arms covered at all times.

    My daughters, on the other hand, are being raised inthe Era of the Pop Ho. This is a time where the lower slopes of Britney Spears’ leotard-clad pubis mons are more recognisable than – although oddly redolent of – David Cameron’s face, and pop videos for female artists have become so predictable, I can run you through what will happen in 90 per cent of them…”

    She proceeds to describe the generic pop video outline:

    • Self-groping which begins with a lascivious sweep across the collarbone, and devolves into breast, belly and booty rubbing (“I know up to nine women, and none of them has ever had to excuse themselves from the table, saying “Sorry – just going to feel myself up in the coat cupboard.”)
    • Sex with an invisible ghost (“Sooner or later, every modern popstress is going to have to vibrate in a squatting position, in order to pleasure the Ghost of Christmas Horny.”)
    • Making your booty touch the ground (“You never see the boys doing it – despite them having legs that are anatomically identical to women’s, and rocking the considerable advantage of not being in six-inch heels.”)
    • Having some manner of liquid land on your face, then licking it off lasciviously (“In no other field of human experience does someone busily engaged in their work – in this case, miming to their latest single – have something land on their face, and react with anything other than a cry of ‘WHAT? WHAT IS GOING ON?'”)

    / I die.

    And of course, the usual Random House press release comes tucked into the book cover, sticking out and annoying the hell out of me. Upon skimming the release date and RRP and all that other guff, however, I spy the line that proclaims Caitlin is available for interviews.

    I could interview Caitlin Moran! If only I actually had a legit reason to do so … and any clue what I could possibly say to her.

  • Review: Fatherland

    Fatherland
    By Robert Harris

    review: fatherland by robert harris

    I picked this up randomly off the ‘recently returned’ bookshelf at my local library. Turns out this book made the author, a humble journalist, famous – and this was the 20th anniversary edition.

    If you have a thing for dystopic novels or an interest in WWII, Fatherland will probably ring all your bells. History buffs will probably appreciate Harris’ efforts to stay as close to the truth as possible, with characters, events, documents and places often based in fact. This is a world where, in the 1960s, there is a nervous standoff between Germany and the rest of the world. The Nazis managed to cow Europe into submission and starve out the Brits (Churchill and the Queen have fled to Canada) and a cold war ensued between Germany and the US. The Holocaust is suspected, but not proven – and nobody dares to ask the hard questions about where all the Jews went.

    Xavier March is a member of the Kriminalpolizei force. It is 20 years on from Nazi Germany’s victory in World War II and the entire country is gearing up for the grand celebration of the Führer’s birthday and a peacemaking visit from President Kennedy. March, however, finds himself at the centre of a rapidly unfolding drama, beginning with a corpse found in a lake one morning who turns out to be a VIP Nazi official. The Gestapo orders March off the case, but our hardboiled detective refuses to back off, uncovering something much more sinister – a trail of mysterious deaths dating back many years.

    A young American journalist about to be booted from the scene handily gets involved, and together they set about tracking down the truth. Why are these men dead? Who gave the orders? What were they covering up? And once they get to the bottom of the conspiracy, can either of them make it out of the country alive to expose the true nature of the Third Reich?

    Fatherland’s characters are not new: the principled hero, a police officer struggling with a corrupt regime, who has given up his family for the job and believes he’s doing the right thing. The bumbling sidekick, steady but not brilliant, more concerned about his family than about principles. The foreign journalist, young, beautiful and with a thing for older men.

    But the premise is so compelling that the blockbuster personalities can be forgiven. We’re not here for the writing; we’re here for the dark, twisted world the author has imagined and brought to terrifying life.

  • Review: The Perfect Balance

    Today marked the start of NZ Money Week! I thought it was timely to review this book.

    book review the perfect balance hannah mcqueen

    The Perfect Balance: How to get ahead financially and still have a life
    By Hannah McQueen, Allen & Unwin,

    First things first: I like Hannah McQueen’s approach. Early in her book, the chartered accountant/financial trainer gets straight down to it: you are never doing as well as you think you are, but it’s never too late to change your ways. I’m also totally behind her argument that to be money smart is to be socially responsible – let’s face it, everything comes back to money in this world.

    But for anyone up with the basics of personal finance, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. Establish an emergency fund. Spend less than you earn. Avoid lifestyle creep. Consolidate debt at lower rates. Brownie points, however, for taking time to discuss the psychological aspect, because in reality finances are just as much rooted in emotion as they are about logic. Think money personality types and triggers for spending and saving. (You may well get a bit uppity, fellow 99 percenters, at the mention of some of her uber-earner clients who can’t seem to get ahead despite pulling down low to mid six-figure incomes.)

    When it comes to talking property, she gives negative gearing a bit of a slap. Many investment properties have a shortfall between rent and the actual mortgage (what does that say – that as ridiculous as our rents are, house prices are even more insanely high?) For every dollar you top up (covering the shortfall between rent and mortgage/other property costs) you get up to 33 percent back in tax. In what universe is this actually a good thing? Sounds about as logical as buying 5 cans of tomatoes just to get a free one, when you know you’re not actually going to use them all up (something I nearly did this week). Relying solely on the property value to go up is risky, especially as we don’t have 30-year fixed rates (the longest term is five, to this renter’s knowledge). And as McQueen writes, over a 30-year mortgage you could well be facing double-digit interest rates at some point.

    (I recall, as an intern, being tasked with compiling a piece comparing mortgage rates around the world a few years ago. It was difficult to pin down true apple-to-apple comparisons, particularly in the US, what with balloon loans and their fixed rates being higher than floating rates, the opposite of here. Nonetheless, our interest rates are always going to be higher than those in many other countries, and as a saver without a mortgage, I am grateful for this right now.)

    The most interesting part of the book comes toward the end, when McQueen finally addresses what is apparently her patented super-mortgage-paydown formula (the catalyst for her starting her own financial advisory business, EnableMe). When she got her first mortgage, she was horrified at how little principal was actually being paid down for the first two decades. So, as you do, she rung up a calculus lecturer at the University of Auckland. The outcome of that was an eight-page equation that apparently will get you out of debt ASAP based on structuring your mortgage on an optimal mix of rates and timeframes, assuming of course that you have spare cash to make extra payments. I’d be interested to know more about how that works, but I guess that’s what her clients cough up $200-plus an hour for.