Category: gender


THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling

Drug addiction, sex, rape, power, corruption and lies. This ‘adult’ novel seems a long way from the world of Hogwarts.

On the surface Pagford is a safe and sedate town; a place where buses “trundle” and where the delicatessen is “run with the ritual and regularity of a temple”.

However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies a festering, dog eat dog world of spiteful social climbers. Rowling revels in her mockery of the airs and graces, petty rivalries and back-stabbing. At the same time she shows a compassion for underdogs and contempt for bullies and braggarts.

As a biting satire of middle class aspirations it is often reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s 1977 stage play ‘Abigail’s Party‘.

This fictional West Country town symbolises a Daily Mail culture of smug NIMBY conservatism. Its self-centred “moral radiance” contrasts with the nearby town of Yarvil where the children are portrayed as “sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring”. Continue reading

TRANSAMERICA directed by Duncan Tucker (USA, 2005)

This is the only film I’ve seen of a woman pretending to be a man who wants to be a woman.

Transamerica is an issue movie but aims at subtle persuasion rather than tubthumping polemic.

You would imagine a film about a transsexual to be more about sex but it makes the valid point that switching gender is as much about identity as getting laid.

Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman is quite superb in the part of Stanley / Sabrina (Bree). She oozes femininity yet looks genuinely mannish and uncomfortable in her skin.

It’s easy to imagine someone undertaking a sex change would be brash and sexually forthright but Bree is actually quite straight-laced and prim. There’s a hint of romance with a chivalrous Mexican man but the raunchiest scenes are reserved for the son (s)he didn’t know existed. Continue reading

Becoming a parent changes you and your relationship with your partner. True as this is, banal statements of this kind say little about what fathering is like and do nothing to prepare you for the riot of emotions that go with the job.

NYC-based photographer Phillip Toledano‘s The Reluctant Father goes a long way to addressing the reality in humourous and ultimately touching way..

He likens confronting the fruit of his loins to a series of close encounters with an alien being.

His experience was all the more traumatic because, as he freely admits, “I was never particularly interested in having kids”. It was just something that happened. Continue reading

ANYA’S GHOST by Vera Brosgol (First Second Books, 2011)

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel tells the tale of a frustrated teenage girl from a Russian family who is desperate to fit in with the cool set at her high school in America. Part of the story  is autobiographical since Vera Brosgol was born in Moscow (in 1984) and now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Anya is self-conscious about her accent, her weight and the fact that she doesn’t measure up to the Barbie-like beauties in her class. To make matters worse the boy she has a crush on hardly seems to notice her.

Her troubled life turns around when, on the way home from school, she takes a short cut through a cemetery and falls down a hole in a nearby forest. Instead of finding white rabbits or Cheshire cats she discovers the skeleton of a girl named Emily who died 90 years previously. She knows this because the girl’s ghost tells her so! Continue reading

STONER by John Williams (Vintage Books, 2003)

First published in 1965 and then largely forgotten, this remarkable novel is nothing short of a masterpiece. I want to press into the hands of everyone I know and tell them ‘you absolutely must read this’. The book’s belated word of mouth success illustrates I am not alone.

The opening page gives fair warning that this will not be a story of heroism or valiant deeds. Instead, it charts the life and death of William Stoner, a professor at the University of Missouri who achieved no high rank and was not generally regarded with any great affection. “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers”.

This introduction might make you think this will be a bleak, even depressing read but I came away from it profoundly moved by its humanity and compassion. I have read reviews that describe Stoner as a failure but this also gives a false impression. It’s true that he did not fulfill all his ambitions but his life was not without achievement nor devoid of meaning. Continue reading

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