Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity – what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails – since he was a boy.
Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone? What would happen if we rethought the old, macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different idea of what makes a man?
Apart from giving up the coronary-inducing stress of always being ‘right’ and the vast new wardrobe options, the real benefit might be that a newly fitted masculinity will allow men to have better relationships – and that’s happiness, right?
Grayson Perry admits he’s not immune from the stereotypes himself – as the psychoanalysts say, ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’ – and his thoughts on everything from power to physical appearance, from emotions to a brand new Manifesto for Men, are shot through with honesty, tenderness and the belief that, for everyone to benefit, upgrading masculinity has to be something men decide to do themselves.
They have nothing to lose but their hang-ups.
This book carries a quote from Caitlin Moran exclaiming ‘GRAYSON PERRY FOR KING AND QUEEN OF ENGLAND. Imagine how BRILLIANT our country would look if he was?’, which is interesting as for me it’s a great companion to her own masterpiece, How to Be a Woman. It has a slightly more academic feel to it (being much shorter and a little lighter on hilarious anecdotes) but it’s just as trailblazing in exploring gender roles in this crazy world.
Personally, I can’t get enough of Mr Perry, not least because he reminds me quite a lot of my partner (they’re both cross-dressing Essex boys who went to art school and love skateboarding and bicycles) and he’s become a much-need voice in the campaign for gender equality from the all too silent progressive cis men’s side. Juicy bedtime read this isn’t but it is fascinating to hear from a man who has REALLY considered his gender and the effect the standards masculinity have on men. Turns out, they could benefit hugely from equality too. A very engaging, worthwhile and quick read.
On an unremarkable Saturday in 1982, two girls meet. Two brown girls who both dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent; a talent so undeniable she is taught to rely on it as a promise, as a way out. The other is taught she has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. She is taught her future is her own to decide.
Theirs a close but complicated childhood friendship that halts abruptly in their early twenties as their two paths diverge and their lives dance out of each other’s view, but never out of their shadow.
This is, shamefully, my first Zadie Smith novel. I’ve always wanted to read White Teeth but have been hesitant as nothing really lives up to the hype, especially nearly two decades of hype. Better to start with something recent and see if you like the author’s style, I find. Thankfully, even though I didn’t adore this book, I did enjoy it and really want to read Smith’s debut now.
Funnily enough, the element that really jarred with me was the Australian character: pop star Aimee (who feels like a Kylie-Madonna hybrid). She dominates the story at times, as the unnamed narrator spends over a decade working as Aimee’s assistant and, lacking in any ambition of her own, follows the pop star everywhere. Having a directionless protagonist is pretty frustrating and a little tedious at times, but thankfully the story is saved by the powerfully drawn characters who really shape the narrator’s story: her childhood best friend, Tracey, and her reluctant mother. The relationship between these three characters felt so complicated and authentic that they made laugh and cringe, often on the same page. A great read.
When Mirka gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their argumentative and turbulent marriage.
Mirka is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break two years ago with her family in Slovakia, Mirka finds to her surprise that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in.
Rural England: it’s often filled with more quirky oddball characters per capita than the cities – alongside a mixture of deep conservatism, old money and fear of outsiders. Imagine moving to the countryside if you were an Eastern European immigrant and a lesbian? That’s Mirka, and when making endless coffees at a central London Pret becomes too tedious, she accepts a job on Richard and Sophie’s farm.
He’s a shit taxidermist and she hosts weddings on the family estate. They’re messy, creative drunks who are desperate for a child, or at least something to shake up their small world. So Mirka makes the perfect distraction to life on the farm, even if not all the locals are quite so welcoming. This book was a surprising treat: quite a perceptive depiction of modern life in the British countryside viewed through the eyes of someone who is clearly an outsider, with a tension that sneaks up on you. A great holiday read.
Meet Samuel: stalled writer, bored teacher at a local college, obsessive player of online video games.
He hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, in decades, not since she abandoned her family when he was a boy. Now she has suddenly reappeared, having committed an absurd politically motivated crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the Internet, and inflames a divided America.
The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.
As Samuel begins to excavate his mother’s – and his country’s – history, the story moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s to New York City during Occupy Wall Street, back to Chicago in 1968 and, finally, to wartime Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. Samuel will unexpectedly find that he has to rethink everything he ever knew about his mother – a woman with an epic story of her own, a story she has kept hidden from the world.
Hands down one of my top 5 books of the year, maybe even top 3! This story is a fantastic mix of radical 60s politics, the contemporary gaming world, the pain of unrequited childhood love, Norwegian folklore and nauseatingly entitled millennial students. If this sounds interesting then you will love this book. It’s so competently crafted that I can’t believe this is the author’s debut.
Clocking in just under 630 pages also makes it the longest book I read in 2016 but, despite the number of characters and narrative threads, I never lost my way. In short, the story is about a bored college professor in his 30s whose wayward mother shows up in the news after a 20-year absence when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a Trump-ish political candidate. Turns out this bored housewife who disappeared on the cusp of her son’s teen years had a short but explosive stint as an activist during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago. This the event that launches one epic story and if you want something you can really sink your teeth into this winter, then this is at the top of my recommended reading list. Enjoy!
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