Meeting the Greats in ‘Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers’

December 3, 2016

James Baldwin

Edited by Graydon Carter
424 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $20.

A good working assumption, if you are a struggling young writer, dreaming of laurels but subsisting on lentils, is that those successful writers you envy are all off somewhere together, Champagne-drunk at a party to which your invitation has mysteriously not arrived.

“Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers,” a collection of pieces from the magazine’s modern incarnation, offers little to disprove this theory. It is not only that the characters you will meet over the course of 400-some pages and 43 articles were no strangers to the cocktails-at-7 circuit (and many of them on close personal terms with the cocktails themselves). They also drank, fought, fawned and flirted with and among one another. The writer’s life is, in part, a vigilant prowl for characters. (“This being the state capital, we had all the state institutions in Jackson — blind, deaf and dumb, insane,” Eudora Welty said in praise of her Mississippi hometown in a 1999 profile by Willie Morris. “Made for good characters.”) As it happens, many of those writers turn out also to be good material themselves.

Accordingly, this anthology reads less like a worshipful or sententious exploration of the art of writing, and more like a highbrow scandal sheet — which, in the best way, Vanity Fair is. (It is an institution in and of itself, and while blindness, deafness and mutism are not often in evidence, insanity is.) It is no slight to say that the gang’s all here — and so, tantalizingly enough, is the gossip. For Toni Morrison’s account of Gabriel García Márquez’s thoughts on Viagra, turn to Page 169.

There are enough gems of this trivially miscellaneous kind to recommend “Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers” on this front alone, at least to any reader invested in the foibles of the great and infamous. And there are worse ways to read it than by skipping from leavening detail to leavening detail, the “bits” that any magazine writer knows must lard a finished piece. Vanity Fair has called upon some of the most gimlet-eyed to supply them over the course of its history: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Wolcott, Patricia Bosworth and Michael Lewis for starters, all of whom are represented in this volume. (In its original incarnation, published in the United States between 1913 and 1936, the magazine famously employed Dorothy Parker and Clare Boothe Luce, both of whom receive tributes here. Luce, then Clare Boothe Brokaw, apparently had an ermine toilet-seat cover.)

Telling such tales can be dangerous — so learns Truman Capote, whose fall from grace when his short story “La Côte Basque, 1965” aired the secrets of his “swans” and patronesses is retold here by Sam Kashner — but it’s also fun. To know that Jacqueline Susann, best-selling author of “Valley of the Dolls,” upholstered her office walls in pink patent leather, commissioned a portrait of her poodle for the side of her Cadillac Eldorado and fervently believed she would win the Nobel Prize is nothing short of life-affirming, especially when followed by Arthur Miller’s grim diagnosis of the durability of anti-Semitism or William Styron’s cleareyed evocation of his own, nearly suicidal depression. (His essay, which ran in Vanity Fair in 1989, eventually became the book “Darkness Visible.”)

The selection was edited by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair’s editor since 1992, and most of the choices were published during his tenure at the magazine — though a handful date from 1983, when the magazine was relaunched by Condé Nast, and through the ’80s. (A separate volume, “Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells,” also edited by Carter and published in 2014, rounds up writing from the magazine’s earlier iteration.) The mix leans heavily on the biggest names (subject, author or both) and not always to its advantage. Many of the pieces included here feel inescapably occasional, their momentary relevance faded by the passage of time. Some are the brief tributes that fill out the mix of magazines but stand uneasily alone; a few are no longer than a paragraph.

But there are several appreciations worth the price of admission, including those of writers whose due is not always freely given. (Of these: Michael Callahan on the “Peyton Place” author Grace Metalious, and Todd S. Purdum on the best-selling juggernaut James Patterson, as much a C.E.O. of a doorstop-thriller factory as a writer conventionally defined.)

Then there is Elizabeth Bishop’s sensitive biographical sketch of her friend the poet Marianne Moore (and her ever-present mother), which was found among her papers at her death and edited for publication by her longtime editor, Robert Giroux. It includes, by way of plot, an account of a larcenous elephant haircut (for the repair of an elephant-hair bracelet) and the rescue, by sailors, of Miss Moore’s flyaway hairpins on a roller coaster; but more important, it includes some lovely examples of Bishop’s natural (and naturalist) acuity. “Somehow, under all the subaqueous pressure” of her environment, Bishop wrote, “Marianne rose triumphant, or rather her voice did, in a lively, unceasing jet of shining bubbles.”

Dip rather than dive, and such wellsprings can be found throughout “Writers on Writers,” which, ever the graceful host, offers up its own scattered jets of shining bubbles. More Champagne?


The Iconic Shakespeare and Company, Paris–Book Review

November 22, 2016

The iconic Shakespeare and Company@ Kilometer Zero , Paris review – the famous bookshop with beds

Sylvia Beach’s store, where Hemingway, Joyce and others gathered, was closed down by the Nazis. A new incarnation has welcomed readers for more than 50 years.

The over-painting of a fascia board bearing the name Shakespeare and Company, in Paris in 1941, remains a significant moment in the history of bookshops. Two weeks earlier, a German officer had walked in and tried to buy Finnegans Wake. The shop’s creator and owner Sylvia Beach had refused to sell it to him, claiming she had only one copy and it was her own. Two weeks later he returned to inform her that all her goods were about to be confiscated and within a couple of hours every shelf had been emptied. Books, photographs and furniture had all been carried to an upstairs apartment and a house painter had obliterated the shop’s title. The Anglo-American bookshop in the rue de l’Odéon, which had been the rendezvous for famous writers and where early purchasers of Ulysses, published by Beach, sometimes found themselves being served by its author, was no more.

There might its story have ended. But Beach lived on, and after the war ended, the GI Bill brought Americans to Paris. One of these was George Whitman. He may or may not have been related to his namesake, but he was certainly a great admirer of Walt. Having gained a degree in journalism from Boston University, this bookish vagabond hitchhiked and train-hopped across Mexico, Central America and the United States, then served in the American army during the second world war, ending up in Taunton, Massachusetts, where, briefly, he ran a small bookshop. Arriving in Paris, in the autumn of 1946, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and began swapping his GI food vouchers for other veterans’ book allowances. In this way he acquired a good enough book collection to set up a lending library in his hotel room.

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The Iconic Shakespeare and Company @Kilometre Zero, Paris, France.

Three years later, he was convinced that with his limited capital and specialist knowledge, his goal should be a significant lending library with a free reading room. But one of his regular visitors, the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti (later owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco), upset his plans by telling him he had to get out of his book-cluttered hole and run a proper shop.

A year later Whitman wrote: “I live for the day when I’ll have a bookstore to embellish this workaday world. I now own one of the best private libraries in the Latin Quarter and, living as I do on less than a dollar a day, I have accumulated a small capital … I’ve talked with Sylvia Beach … There is a possibility that she would consent to go into business with me – although I’ve been avoiding offers of partnership, it would be an honour and a privilege to work with Sylvia Beach, should she decide to reopen Shakespeare and Company. Either way I hope finally to have a niche where I can safely look upon the world’s horrors and beauty.”

George Whitman, proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Paris, in 2009. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

The partnership with Beach never happened, but she regularly frequented the Mistral bookshop that Whitman opened at 37 rue de la Bûcherie in 1951, whence she departed with almost more books than she could carry. Eventually she gave him permission to use the title of her former shop. It was a few years before he actually did so but, even before the name went up, Shakespeare and Company’s second life, the subject of this new book, had effectively begun.

It was not a normal shop, and this is not a conventional book. Rightly so, but there is some irritation in having to turn it sideways every time you want to read a caption to an illustration. It is fast and fun, historically slapdash and occasionally repetitious. The main text is regularly disrupted by poems, short memoirs and photographs, but what holds it together is the extraordinary character and behaviour of George, as Whitman is referred to throughout.

His premises initially consisted of only three rooms, running like a series of railway carriages into an increasingly dark recess, offering a labyrinth of alcoves and cubby holes. But he soon expanded into the apartment upstairs, which made possible a reading room and a continuation of his lending library.

His girlfriend at the time commented on the abounding energy within the shop. Whitman himself constructed the shelves and make-shift divans. A socialist entrepreneur as well as an ardent bibliophile, he not only aimed to stock his shop with the finest English language collection of books outside Britain and America, but also hosted free seminars at which visitors could learn Russian, engage in Italian conversation or discuss new topics of socio-psychological research. He had not forgotten the hospitality freely given him in the course of his early travels and encouraged those in need of a bed or a floor for the night (“Tumbleweeds”, he called them) to sleep in the shop. “I believe we’re all homeless wanderers in a way,” he would say.

Generosity lay at the heart of this quixotic enterprise, in small ways and large. George made ice-cream on Sundays for homesick compatriots and baked American pies in the stove in the hall. Among the established authors who frequented the shop were Lawrence Durrell and the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. William Burroughs often attended the Sunday afternoon tea parties, and African-American writers sought refuge from the racism they had experienced in the States. Richard Wright did his book signings there. When Anaïs Nin called Whitman “a saint among books” it was almost certainly the hospitality he offered the young and needy that she had in mind.

One of the bedrooms in the bookshop. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian.

Numerous famous writers frequented the shop or gave readings there, and to this day Jeanette Winterson, who has written this book’s preface, remains one of its “Tumbleweeds”. At one point Whitman’s eccentricity and the government’s bureaucracy nearly brought the shop to a close. Certainly the absence, as late as 2002, of any form of modern technology, even a computer or telephone, caused problems.

But a second Sylvia, namely Whitman’s daughter, and her partner have stepped in and, after an inevitable degree of internecine warfare, the bookshop has been expanded on the ground and in cyberspace. It now has a cafe, occupies six floors and has also taken over two premises around the corner. George’s ideals live on. He died aged 98, in his bedroom above the bookshop. “I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read,” he said. “I don’t have time for anything else.”

These “empires of the spirit”, in Whitman’s phrase, call for further attention in another book recently published, Browse: The World of Bookshops, edited by Henry Hitchings (Pushkin, £12.99). Sixteen contemporary authors, from 11 countries around the world, recount the role bookshops have played in their own lives, as well as the stories, habits and treasure associated with particular examples. Ali Smith, who works a stint for a few hours each week in her local Amnesty International second-hand bookshop, is fascinated by the way books become unexpected repositories for inscriptions and detritus that indicate something about the lives of those who once owned them. But all these writers convey the magic of bookshops, while also making their vulnerability in recent times a recurrent theme.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Krista Halverson, is available from Thames & Hudson

The End of UMNO –Part II–The Impending Perish

The End of UMNO–Part II–The Impending Perish

by Dr. KJ John

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In my last column I argued, premised upon the speech by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah during a book launch, about how privatisation of public assets and functions led to almost complete and systemic corruption of UMNO. This column will focus on the other UMNO person who spoke at the launch of Bridget Welsh’s book ‘The End of UMNO?’ He has however resigned from UMNO though.

That person is none other than my good friend Saifuddin Abdullah. We became closer friends after he was appointed as a councillor for the National IT Council (NITC) for the second National IT Council when I was the executive director. His first claim to fame was a paper he delivered in Singapore on the future of governance with technology assuming an important role as a medium of communication.

Saifuddin also wrote the foreword to the above Welsh book. His was a truthful and personal testimonial about his journey into and within UMNO and why he finally had to leave Umno because there was no choice left. That really also begs the question as to why Tengku Razaleigh actually has never actually left UMNO. Maybe it is his fear of irrelevance.

Saifuddin asks three important questions in his foreword and I have chosen to highlight them and to use his piece to support my thesis about Umno’s impending perish. His three questions or issues are:

  • What is Malaysia’s future for every Malaysian?
  • Does not systemic racism and racialism originate from within UMNO?
  • UMNO’s new-found love to protect and preserve Islam; with a corresponding disregard for the role of sultans as the prime protectors of the religion of Islam and Malay culture as heads of states. Is that being sincere or equally another form of corruption?

Finally, then Saifuddin concludes with an expanded thesis about the future of the nation-state, its peoples, and some challenges faced by the country we all love.

UMNO’s past, Malaysia’s future

In a very personal and truthful testimonial way Saifuddin argues why the UMNO of his grandmother, the party that upheld the value of service before self as its pre-ordinate value, has now become a self-serving and rather self-abusive party. He upholds integrity as his golden standard.

The original leaders of UMNO were mainly teachers and grassroots community workers who worked hard for the service of all mankind, never really for self-service but to promote the welfare of their community first. Service to others was their defining value and commitment of faith; ‘untuk Bangsa dan Negara’.

They called themselves Orang UMNO but almost never as Ahli UMNO. Being an UMNO person was their all inspiring purpose, defined by their faith values and upheld by this sense of mission. They did it with faith in God and country; never really for their self-interest alone.

The new UMNO of Ketuanan Melayu vintage replaced teachers with businessmen and in fact one of my former roommates, now an MP and deputy minister, once told me that even in the early 70s, it cost him about RM100,000 to succeed in and win the UMNO branch elections. In fact at the height of his battle for state leadership of the party, he was even labelled the 6 million ringgit man by the other side.

Saifuddin concludes that UMNO Berjuang had now become UMNO Berwang and therefore he finally chose to leave the party. To quote Saifuddin Abdullah: “The 1MDB scandal – the mother of all scandals – involving Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Abdul Razak is a classic example of how money politics has corrupted the party to the core.”

The penultimate straw that broke the camel’s back for him was the total and complete rejection of the Government Transformation Programme after it was officially launched and adopted. In fact, the late Zainal Aznam, another good friend and former Economic Planning Unit (EPU) Deputy Chief, even argued against this reversal, simply because some warlords in UMNO objected to the more even playing field for all and sundry.

Like Henry Ford had once said when questioned about the rolling out of all black Ford Cars; what was good for Ford was good for America. Apparently, what is good enough for a weak and corrupt UMNO leader must also be good enough for Malaysia, too. Forget their component eunuch parties (MCA, MIC and Gerakan).

Systemic racism

Does UMNO really serve even the majority of Malays any more? If it does serve the Malays, for which Malays do their bells toll?

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Saifuddin quotes a study by Muhammed Ahmad Khalid that inequality is getting worse in Malaysia as follows: …the trickle-down effect does not really include everyone… Some end up progressing faster and further than others while a sizeable section lags behind… hence creating a dangerous phenomenon: widening inequality.”

Muhammed Ahmad Khalid’s conclusion is probably most disconcerting: “According to a former prime minister, the supreme council members and the ministers… are mainly interested in what they can get out of politics for themselves.”

The current UMNO leadership is self-serving and does not even have majority of Malays in mind. They exist for themselves, by themselves, and with their cronies.

UMNO’s religious ploy

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In response to the failure of their political race-based agenda; UMNO’s unstated but visible agenda is to use Islam as a means to reinforce their failing support; especially in the countryside of Malaya. Their core argument is that Islam needs to be protected; especially from Chinese domination in Malaysia. No Middle Moderate Malaysian can believe this.

Their implicit assumption is that the royalty is therefore lame and no more protectors of Islam. The military is also impotent and the Parliament has become irrelevant. Their real but implicit theological argument is that their Allah is not able to defend his own name; to put it rather bluntly. Therefore, the consequential breakaway of all honest and truthful Muslims is inevitable from both UMNO and PAS.

Whither then, Malaysia’s future?

Last week: The corruption of UMNO?

Next week: The corruption of UMNO? Part III

KJ John’s Comments on Bridget Welsh’s End of UMNO?

November 7, 2016

KJ John’s Comments on Bridget Welsh’s End of UMNO?

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I attended a book launch on the ‘The End of UMNO?’ because my good friend Saifuddin Abdullah wrote the foreword and invited me to be present. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the veteran UMNO member and the best prime minister we never had gave the keynote address.

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The book has four chapters contributed by four authors, and edited by Bridget Welsh. Other chapters are by other equally renowned scholars; John Funston, Clive Kessler and James Chin. The chapters are good reading with titles like:

  • UMNO – From Hidup Melayu to Ketuanan Melayu
  • UMNO – Then, Now – and Always
  • From Ketuanan Melayu to Ketuanan Islam: UMNO and the Malaysian Chinese
  • Malaysia’s Fallen Hero: UMNO’s Weakening Political Legitimacy

It is a good political and truthful outsider view of the history of UMNO from its past to its natural and impending disastrous future. All speakers predicted the same fate to UMNO, similar to Japan and India with their politically and morally corrupt political parties of power, authority, and ultimate final loss of control.

Tengku Razaleigh’s thesis

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Given that this was only my second time hearing or being with Tengku Razaleigh; allow me to summarise his thesis because the UMNO leadership of the future needs to hear his complete argument; assuming they understand English.

In Tengku Razaleigh’s view, UMNO Baru started because the judges lacked wisdom; the High Court should have ordered regularisation of unregistered branches instead of declaring UMNO illegal. In his view also the original spirit of UMNO needs to be revived. UMNO Baru is not the UMNO of Onn Jaafar and the other such originalists.

Next he argued that the Conference of Rulers is still a relevant and significant part of both the Malaya and Malaysia Agreements. They are always a significant party and that singular constitutional amendment does not exclude them from their role as moral guardians of Malaysian Constitutionalism.

The UMNO Racists (Zahid Hamidi, Kerismuddin, Noah Omar, Khairy Jamaluddin, Jamal Ikan Bakar Yunos and Criminal Najib Razak)

The MPs also have a role and responsibility of their Oaths of Office; to uphold, protect and preserve the Federal Constitution by which they took their oath. All MPs hold this responsibility to uphold the constitution as their supreme loyalty; as per Oath of Office. Even UMNO’s Supreme Council cannot and should not overrule this truth. This moral role of all MPs and Royalty needs to be better institutionalised for assuming full and moral responsibility.

To his mind and heart, our constitutional democracy and supremacy of the Federal Constitution specifically took a beating because of the policy of privatisation. Allow me to quote his most caustic description of the Malaysian political and policy problem today:

“The privatised corporate power became the defining factor in moving the country ahead, and in the process, makes a mockery of the sanctity and supremacy of our constitution. What we need to realise is that the country is not a corporation. We cannot conflate the two; for this would place corporate power above the constitution and the people. The problem and controversy surrounding the 1MDB issue is a classic example of the conflation.”

I fully and totally agree and I am amused that to date the federal government and all her agents and agencies, whether the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), or Auditor-General, or Bank Negara Malaysia, could not observe this issue clearly to rectify the mess we are already sinking into. 1MDB is simply a bad example of such abuse of power.

Conflicts of interest as operating paradigm

The older UMNO fought for the interest of others. The Rulers-in-Council also did the same. They all agreed that race-based parties were needed and therefore included MCA and MIC with their concessions. The British agreed with all these with new Malayan leaders of that time.

But today’s UMNO is now corrupted to the core; by the spoils of corporatisation through privatisation. No agency is spared including the Federal Land Development Agency (Felda), which has a clear and specific bumiputra agenda; but who cares right? It has also become a mere means to get rich through appointees and players (crony capitalism and rentierism).

The abuse of governance of this nation-state was fully institutionalised when the president of UMNO and Prime Minister becomes also became the finance minister; 1MDB is only one small case in point.

The entire Finance Ministry is today a framework for “piratisation of public assets for private benefit”. In fact, today the entire nation and all her natural assets are up for grabs. Anyone who can is already doing this; all in the name of privatisation but which has become ‘piratisation’.

The cabinet as executive arm of governance appears to have lost its significance and meaning. For example, Act 355 is a major policy issue for the governance of this nation-state; apart from its abuse of the Federal Constitution. But, to the best of my knowledge, it was never presented to the executive branch of governance. How then can it be tabled in Parliament, or even placed on the agenda list; without a serious discussion at the cabinet? Are all ministers colluding then?

Tengku Razaleigh warned that the government cannot simply table issues and concerns, after support of the Umno supreme council. Such lack of transparency and abuse of good governance principles needs complete review to check the other arms of governance; including by the Conference of Rulers.

Therefore, Bersih

Given this ugly reality of the blatant abuse of governance today by most in authority, is it unreasonable for civil activists to mobilise Bersih? After all Bersih now only wants the following five claims:

  • Clean general elections
  • Clean governance
  • Strengthening parliamentary democracy
  • Embolden and enable Sabah and Sarawak
  • The right of peaceful protest by citizens

Are we really asking for much more than Tengku Razaleigh?

Book Review: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

October 25, 2016

Book Review: The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry — A man’s man is yesterday’s hero

by Matt Haig

Grayson Perry’s timely, entertaining book explores how rigid masculine roles can destroy men’s lives

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Grayson Perry

It is a strangely embarrassing time to be a man. You only have to watch the news, or log on to Twitter, or just open your eyes, and you will see a man doing something atrocious. Very often the man we see is Donald Trump, but Trump is just the most visible example of the toxic masculinity on offer. It is there, in some form or other, all over our virtual and actual reality.

Of course, men have always done terrible things. You could pinpoint any moment in history and men would have been doing something despicable. Pol Pot and Hitler and Stalin were men, for instance. So was Jack the Ripper. So is, indisputably, Donald Trump.

And, away from the big names, as Grayson Perry puts it in his new book on masculinity, “most violent people, rapists, criminals, killers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex abusers and dinner-party bores, do tend to be, well… men”. This has always been the case, in every patriarchal society in history. But the difference nowadays is that we are beginning to understand that part of the problem with men is not their gender but rather the gender role dictated to them.

For decades now, female writers and theorists have been dismantling their biological gender from the perceived feminine roles that can restrict or harm their lives. It is only recently that we have started to do this with men too, to see a man as distinct from the concept and construct of masculinity. Maybe one of the reasons for this is that we have a tendency to regard men as the normal human state of things. Society is shaped by men, literally, in the sense that town planners and architects have traditionally been male (an issue that Perry touches on, looking at how public toilets and even air conditioning are geared towards male comfort levels) and so we aren’t trained to notice them. Us. Men just are.

Perry claims this is also one of the reasons why men dress how they do. The grey business suit, for instance. “A primary function of their sober attire is not just to look smart,” he notes, “but to be invisible… the business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity.”

Life as performance is not a new idea. As the melancholic Jaques famously tells us in Act II of As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” Merely players, maybe, but performing different roles. Perry himself is arguably the perfect person to write about masculinity, as he is not only a man – “a white man, a rather tarnished badge to wear these days, weighted with guilt and shame at the behaviour of one’s fellows” – but also a man who, along with those early Shakespearean actors, likes to wear women’s clothes from time to time.

One of the strongest areas of the book is here, on the topic of clothing. He reminds us of the codes we often follow, without thinking too deeply about them; how men often dress functionally for work, while women’s attire is expected to be more frivolous and decorative, one big “extraneous addition” tacked on to the male status quo. But Perry admits that wearing women’s clothes doesn’t give him special immunity from the masculine role. The reason he can see the perils of masculinity, despite being a self-confessed sissy, is because he is familiar with those roles, has known many of them himself – “if you spot it, you’ve got it”. In two lovely biographical anecdotes (of which there are many), he writes about how he used to be horrified as a child whenever he had to eat his cereal out of a bowl with a floral pattern and he would slowly see the flowers appear as the milk went down; and of the thrill he got from watching violent movies on television and then talking about them the next day with his school friends.

‘There’s a slight contradiction about a man in the public eye calling for men to shy away from public life.’ Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

While The Descent of Man, as with Perry’s TV series All Man on which this book frequently draws, may be an attack on certain aspects of masculinity, it is not an attack on men. Perry rightly acknowledges that masculine values, such as stoic self-sufficiency, can be chronically damaging to men, and can harm their relationships with their partners and with themselves.

Indeed, with suicide now the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50, this is an urgent issue. Men need to do more speaking out and less manning up. Yet because we see men as the default setting, the risk is that we see their problems as the natural order of things. Men may reap many economic and social benefits from adopting the cloak of masculinity, but their self-imposed emotional sphere might be claustrophobic for some. “Old-school men” can feel a failure simply by asking for help.

The solution, according to this book, is not to abandon masculinity altogether, but to shift it a little. He points to a new model of manhood, a more tender model, embodied by Barack Obama and David Beckham. He calls out to his fellow men, suggesting we need to learn that embarrassment is not fatal, that change is possible, and that men need to “stop giving other men, and themselves, a hard time for not attaining the standards of masculinity”.

The book is written clearly and accessibly, and is so natural you can almost hear the sound of Grayson Perry’s voice in your head as you read. If there is a criticism, it’s that there is a slight contradiction about a man very much in the public eye calling for men to shy away from public life and “sit down for [their] rights”. There is nothing more old-school male than believing your opinions are worthy of books and television shows. A subtler contradiction is that the attack on “old-school man” is perhaps a little on the brutal side, a little bullish in tone, as if subscribing to the patriarchal idea that men are tough enough to take it. Maybe there is room for all kinds of masculinity, including tough-guy lumberjacks and ice-road truckers, as long as everyone is kind to one another.

These criticisms are, however, only slight. At a time when an old-school man like Nigel Farage can defend Trump’s sleaze talk as “alpha-male boasting”, and when Trump contextualises his “banter” by resorting to the mythology of the male space of the locker room, clear and accessible discussions of masculinity are long overdue. This book, with its non-macho slender girth and personal, engaging approach, is a breeze of a read, and one that makes you see our male-manufactured world a little differently. And you can’t really ask for more than that.

Book Review: Hero of the Empire

October 6, 2016

by Jennifer Senior

Candice Millard’s third book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” would make a fine movie, though Richard Attenborough did, in a sense, get there first. In 1972, he made “Young Winston,” drawn from Churchill’s own account of his early life, and it includes the same material Ms. Millard recounts so thrillingly: the future prime minister’s brash heroics in the South African Republic in 1899, which culminated in a prison break and nine days on the lam.

“I’m free! I’m free! I’m Winston bloody Churchill, and I’m free!” he shouts in the film, just as he crosses the border to safety — a moment, we later realize, that could just as easily have referred to Churchill’s psychological relief as his physical freedom: He had finally shaken off the legacy of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose formidable early accomplishments and later humiliations stalked him like the moon.

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As her subtitle suggests, Ms. Millard similarly believes that the conflict in the Boer Republics profoundly influenced Churchill. But her book is much shorter on the anxiety of influence and far longer on the blustery impatience of youth. In Ms. Millard’s retelling, young Churchill was entitled, precocious, supernaturally confident — one of those fellows whose neon self-regard is downright unseemly until the very moment it is earned.

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“Churchill seemed far less Victorian than Rooseveltian,” she writes. (Well, his mother was American.) Or, as his first biographer wrote: “Winston advertises himself as simply and unconsciously as he breathes.”

On its face, Churchill’s role in the Second Boer War may not seem like a substantial enough subject for a book. Don’t be fooled. Over the years, Ms. Millard has made a stylish niche for herself, zooming in on a brief, pivotal chapter in the life of a historical figure and turning it into a legitimate feature-length production. In “The River of Doubt,” she focused on Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon basin to recover from his defeat in 1912. (These excursions seemed to be the political equivalent of rebound girlfriends for him.) In “Destiny of the Republic,” she focused on the assassination of James A. Garfield, particularly the doctors who serially bungled their attempts to save his life.

The story Ms. Millard tells here is no less cinematic or dramatic. Churchill covered the Second Boer War as a correspondent for The Morning Post, but he was hardly an ordinary reporter: He insisted on traveling with his valet; he took along roughly $4,000 of fine wines and spirits, including 18 bottles of St.-Émilion and another 18 of 10-year-old Scotch.

Most critically, though, he brought with him a great thirst for redemption. Churchill, 24, had just stood for Parliament and lost, having made the dire mistake of running “on the strength of his father’s name rather than his own.” Though he’d already fought in two wars — one in Sudan, the other on the northwest frontier of British India — and witnessed another as a reporter in Cuba, he “returned home every time without the medals that mattered, no more distinguished or famous than he had been when he set out.”

It was not for lack of trying. He charged the Pashtun while riding a bright gray pony. He stuck out like a bride.

Churchill hoped that the Second Boer War would finally do the trick. It did, and how. While on a scouting expedition on an armored train, he and scores of British soldiers were shelled by pom-poms, vicious weapons with a deceptively quaint nickname. His army instincts took over, and it was in large part because of his courageous efforts — and a dash of MacGyver ingenuity — that anyone on the train came back.

The bad news: Churchill was captured. The good news: Everyone in England knew about his bravery. The headlines were the stuff of his dreams. “MR. CHURCHILL’S HEROISM” screamed The Yorkshire Evening Post.

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This part of the book — where the train derails — is the only part where the narrative derails, too. (The logistics of this particular skirmish? A bit of a bore. Or rather, too minutely conveyed. They’re hard to follow.)

Soldier through. The rest of Ms. Millard’s book — about Churchill’s time as a prisoner of war, his audacious escape, the outcome of the conflict — are as involving as a popcorn thriller. Ms. Millard does an excellent job conveying the drama of confinement, both inside the prison and out. Being on the run meant hiding in many dark, dank, undignified spaces. It meant tolerating uncertainty, which Churchill hated. It meant being powerless, utterly dependent on the mercy of strangers, and he hated that, too. “It had been hard enough,” she writes, “to take orders from his superiors while he was in the army.”

Ms. Millard also shows, as she has in her previous work, that she has a great ear for quotes — an underrated virtue in writers of history. (Favorite example: The British Ambassador to Berlin wrote that Churchill’s mother had “more of the panther than of the woman in her look.”) Her eye for detail is equally good. With just a few key images, she conveys how the most formidable empire on the planet could be so discomfited by an unpolished, seemingly ragtag army of Boers: “At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight,” she writes. “The other 10 were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms and waiting on their officers.”

It didn’t help matters that the British soldiers brought heaps of amenities into the field, which required many mules and oxen to lug. They were the hopeless dowager aunt who brings way too much luggage on holiday.

But the real example of profligacy in this story may be young Churchill’s ego. It’s not a surprise, exactly. What’s striking is the high volume of evidence Ms. Millard has compiled to show how unswervingly he believed in his own majestic destiny more than 40 years before he fulfilled it, and how early this belief began to appear, like the first visible outlines on a Polaroid.

“I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” Churchill wrote to his mother from Bangalore, trying to reassure her he wouldn’t be killed in India.

The powerful really are different from you and me. They have more confidence. It requires outsize stamina and self-assurance to save a nation. “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults,” his first love, Pamela Plowden, once said. “And the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.”

Hero of the Empire

The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

By Candice Millard

Illustrated. 381 pages. Doubleday. $30.

A version of this review appears in print on September 22, 2016, on page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: That War Where Churchill First Earned His Spurs. Today’s Paper|Subscribe