What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men

edited by Ian Brown

Published by Thomas Allen

324 pages, 2005

Buy it online



Sex and Silence

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


How many men do you know who have read either of the Dropped Threads books? These two bestsellers, published in 2001 and 2002 and edited by the late Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson, were hailed as definitive books revealing how women thought. The readership was almost totally female.

What I Meant to Say grew out of a meeting with Ian Brown and the publisher of Thomas Allen, Patrick Crean. When the latter asked Brown if he thought men would read a book like this, Brown said he didn't think so, but he thought women might. As he says in the introduction:

Maybe women would read a book about men, written by men, if it ... were a group of articulate men trying to explain their private selves, to women, in the aftermath of the women's movement. That way men might find it interesting too.

This book evolved as a result of that conversation. It contains 29 essays which reputedly are an attempt to deal with, as Brown has said, "some of the dilemmas men face in an age where women are on the rise."

According to Brown, the topic of the inner lives of men is one that frightens people. "This, after all, is where all that vaunted anger and violence and rage come from, a place renowned for its darkness and isolation." I think women would eagerly read these inner lives in the hopes of discovering what, indeed, their men had meant to say. Almost all wives know the frustration of trying to get their partners to open up, of pleading: "Say something."

This collection could therefore be as avidly read by women as Dropped Threads if it really delivers on its promise. But does it? Going back to the editor's original mandate of revealing some of the dilemmas men face in a more female empowered society, I'd have to say "not always."

J.M. Kearns' essay, "How Men Choose Women, " for example, will alienate most female readers with its patronizing tone about how we should be snaring men. We're not reading a dating manual after all. We didn't pick up this book to get lectured. Kearns has totally missed the mark here.

Bert Archer's vitriolic "Why Boys Are Better Than Girls" is a diatribe against females. "Breaking the rules, even being disgusting, is men's mainstream," he writes, and then proceeds to be as disgusting as he can, claiming that the reason he has sex with men is simply that they're easier. This is a rant, not enlightenment. First we get lectured to, then we get insulted. Another missed mark. I think the editor may have underestimated the effect of a piece like this on his readership. Something vital has been overlooked here: the importance of respecting the reader.

But all is not lost. Philip Preville's "Shop Like a Girl" saves the day. His description of the shopper's trance he calls "The Zone" is dead on, entertaining and informative.

Russell Wangersky's "Heroes" may make you want to reach out and comfort this sensitive and caring First Responder who wants so badly to save a life and make a difference. His second essay, "Ways of Seeing," also takes you into the heart of a single father and his fears. We want more revelations of this nature and more gentle men like this to let us into their silences but, of course, that's not the point of the book, is it?

Many essays are predictable. Chris Nuttall-Smith rationalizing why he wants his child to have his surname and not his wife's; Don Gillmor trying to come to terms with having to share his home office, Ray Robertson's long trip from Canada to America and from believing guns and violence to be sexy, to saying "No." There's something reassuring,though, about predictable.

You'll recognize some of the writers, many of whom are Toronto-based. Several are Globe and Mail contributors and columnists, one is editor of Saturday Night, another of Walrus Magazine, another is a senior writer at Macleans. Some are involved in television and radio, many are authors: Greg Hollingshead has published six books and was a recipient of the Governor General's Award 1995; David Macfarlane is a playwright as well as a novelist and Andrew Pyper has three published novels.

Editor Brown states that his first criterion for inclusion in this anthology was the quality of its writing. It also had to tell him something fresh about being a man. The essays had to be candid but writers needed to explain themselves gracefully. The latter is a tall order, unsurprisingly not always filled. There's a reason "graceful" is usually seen as a feminine word.

Divided into three sections -- body, mind and soul -- the topics range widely from sex to death, drinking to shopping.

Brown takes us into unmapped territory, an uncharted area where most women will be eager to go. Like many voyages, however, all is not plain sailing. | November 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.