Throughout the year, The Agenda invites authors to discuss their newly released books. Over the past 12 months, we talked about a range of timely and timeless subjects — the political power of women’s anger, how to raise boys, ambivalence about motherhood, the future of the magazine industry, finding humour in the most tragic of circumstances. Here’s a roundup of some 2018’s most insightful conversations.
Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time, Michael Palin
Michael Palin, Monty Python member and legendary funnyman, has turned his attention to a new and different topic: the fate of the Erebus, an enduring naval mystery. But as he tells Steve Paikin, his interest in the doomed Franklin Expedition is informed by his comic sensibilities. “I like stories. I like comedy. If you like comedy, you also like the other side that makes the tension in a story. Actually, I made the decision to tell the story of the ship because part of it was the catastrophic disaster that was the Franklin Expedition — the other part was a highly successful four-year expedition through the Antarctic before that.” Palin pored through letters and documents while writing his book, searching for details that would make the story more nuanced, more human. “I was seeing the lighter side and the darker side. I look for humour because humour is what keeps people going in adversity.”
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Boys: What It Means to Become a Man, Rachel Giese
Released just a few months into the #MeToo movement, the book explores a timely topic: toxic masculinity and the toll it takes on men, women, and the culture as a whole. Toronto journalist Rachel Giese talked to parents, educators, psychologists, sociologists, and boys themselves to identify and analyze the challenges of growing up male. During her conversation with Nam Kiwanuka, Giese makes reference to the concept of the “man box.” “[It’s] a term that’s been used by sociologists for about a decade or so to talk about the set of traditional attributes of masculinity,” she says. “Being aggressive, being a breadwinner, being heterosexual, being physically strong, liking sports, being emotionally stoic, having power over women, liking things like technology and cars.” And the man box comes with a cost. “The reason it’s given the box label is because it is a limiting thing,” she says. “And it’s also an almost impossible thing for a boy or man to live up to at any given time.”
Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, Elizabeth Renzetti
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti has been covering feminist issues for most of her career. In her book, she shares insights about the issues she’s reported on and anecdotes about the people she’s interviewed — but she also gets personal, musing about lessons she’s tried to teach her children and what she’s learned about feminism from her mother. Older feminists, she tells Nam Kiwanuka, have a lot to learn from younger generations. “[Young feminists] have a different interface with the world. They have different connections to it. And they see the world differently,” she says, pointing to issues of inclusiveness and intersectionality. “It’s young feminists driving this idea that white feminism is a problem, which I believe it is — that the voices of white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight women have been at the forefront of the movement, and other voices have been pushed to the side.”
Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, Tina Brown
Editor Tina Brown breathed new life into Vanity Fair and The New Yorker at a time when their popularity was flagging. Then she created the digital upstart Daily Beast. These days, she helms Women in the World, an annual summit that highlights women’s voices and accomplishments. As a female executive who’s worked for decades in a traditionally male milieu, she’s faced her share of sexism. “I felt very irritated, frankly, that so much of what I was doing was so good in terms of upgrading the magazine standards,” she tells Nam Kiwanuka. “But, at the time, I got a lot of flak for it and a lot of the flak for a kind of marginalizing, if you like, of the efforts that I made. As a woman who somehow has lesser gravitas.” Over the years, her perspective on such reactions developed and changed. “It was undoubtedly a sexist feeling that was projected,” she says. “It’s only now that I see it for what it was, a kind of grudging misogyny that was directed at me for many years.”
Calypso, David Sedaris
Calypso finds humourist David Sedaris searching for a deeper meaning in some of the tragic events in his life: his sister Tiffany’s suicide, his mother’s alcoholism. But, he tells Steve Paikin, for him, he tried to remain aware of the humour that is never far from any human experience. “Usually, if it was funny, funny, and then it’s tragic … I thought, I need to lighten it up a bit,” he says. “Or, it was just all funny, and I thought maybe I need to dig a little deeper here, just to have that mix … There were certain essays in this book that were pretty heavy subjects.”
Motherhood, Sheila Heti
Nominated for this year’s Giller Prize for fiction, Motherhood explores the ambivalence some women feel about having children — still a controversial topic, even though conventional definitions of family life are changing. It’s not an autobiographical work, but, Sheila Heti explains, the story was born of her uncertainty about whether to become a mother. As she tells Nam Kiwanuka, “I don’t think a lot of people consciously think it through. I think it’s just an expectation; you’ve had it your whole life. Everyone around you is doing it. And you do it.” One of her aims was to challenge such implicit expectations. “Part of what I wanted the book to do was to create a space for there to be conscious deliberation around it, because there is a choice,” she says. “I think it’s responsible and interesting to make it.”
I’m Afraid of Men, Vivek Shraya
Visual artist, musician, and writer Vivek Shraya has spent years exploring and challenging ideas about gender. Her new book, I'm Afraid of Men, has been sparking conversations about identity and masculinity. Earlier in life, she identified as queer; on her 35th birthday, she came out as trans. “For me, going back to my teenage years, I knew who I was, but everyone around me was telling me I wasn’t who I was,” she says. “’What if they change their mind’ is a way to rob them of agency. So I think it’s really about trusting that a child knows who they are and giving them the room and space to grow into who they are.”
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Woman’s Anger, Rebecca Traister
Can women’s anger change the world? New York magazine and The Cut contributor Rebecca Traister thinks so. In her latest book, she discusses how the rage sparked by such events as the election of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement may chart a new course for our culture. As she tells Steve Paikin, the 2017 Women’s March sowed the seeds of historic change. “One of the things I argue in the book,” she says, “is that while people think of anger as only divisive and destructive — and it has those qualities — we never talk about how it can be connective.”