Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son Hardcover – Sep 29 2009
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"An immensely gifted writer and a magical prose stylist." -- MICHIKO KAKUTANI, THE NEW YORK TIMES -- The New York Times
"It's as if Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth started a rock 'n' roll band; this is writing that makes you want to get up and dance." -- LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW -- Los Angeles Times
"It's as if Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth started a rock 'n' roll band; this is writing that makes you want to get up and dance." -- LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEWSee all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
The best essays are near the beginning, which have Chabon ruminating on the evolution of Lego, the worlds we create as kids and how parents obsessed with safety are set to infringe on these worlds, the bastardization of childhood by consumer culture and corporate movies that package and sell children's imagination back to them. He then goes on to essays about his childhood, his sexual awakenings, his difficulties as a father dealing with such subjects as drugs, sex, and faking how to install the towel rack in the bathroom. Chabon literally covers pretty much every angle that masculinity can be approached from, and he does so with flair and originality, coming at topics that we've heard of so many times before at different angles and making you see them in a new light. He's also hilarious, and deeply philosophical at times. The writing sometimes poetic, but often conversational as if a friend has taken you aside to let you in on a secret.
I will definitely be keeping this book for a long time, as these are essays that I know I will turn to time and time again for inspiration, laughter, and nostalgia.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
And while it's fantastic that moms have avenues for them to connect and to converse, dads have had to work much harder to find thoughtful writing about fatherhood that doesn't idealize, essentialize, or talk down to them. Now, Chabon has filled that niche admirably with MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS, a wide-ranging but thematically focused collection of his autobiographical writings (many previously published in Details magazine and elsewhere). Here, Chabon touches on many of the motifs that he has explored in his other nonfiction writing and in his novels --- baseball, comics, sex, writing, religion --- but inevitably circles back to what is, for him, at the center of it all: his family.
Chabon, a father of four young children, uses his writing to constantly define what it means --- and what it could mean --- to be a husband, a father, and a man in the early years of the 21st century. He defines his own role in comparison to his well-meaning but distant father and also in the context of society's (embarrassingly low) expectations of what fathers can and should accomplish. Chabon's writing is unapologetically male-oriented (female readers will learn what fanboys are really thinking when looking at those buxom, Amazonian comic book heroines). But he writes in a way that continually questions the implications of masculinity. For example, he speaks appreciatively of his forced adolescent introduction into the culinary arts when his mother returned to work and of the implications of a man carrying a (gulp) man purse, or "murse."
Throughout, Chabon utilizes the kind of wry observations and exquisite literary craft that have made his novels both popular and critical sensations. Almost all the essays are simultaneously thoughtful, cohesive, and very, very funny. But Chabon's writing is most affecting and emotionally open when he's writing passionately about his wife and beloved children (even when he's commenting on their odorousness or their tendency to ask difficult questions about embarrassing subjects). His observations on marriage and parenthood are specific enough to resonate with other parents but universal enough to speak to any reader who has considered thoughtfully the role of the family in American life or the changing responsibilities and expectations of the sexes.
I used to have a hard time finding gifts for friends about to embark on the journey of fatherhood; most in my circle would just roll their eyes at a sugary gift book about the meaning of fatherhood. But Michael Chabon's new memoir is so much more than that: it is an exquisite blend of the mundane and the mind-blowing, all broken down into short essays just the right length to read while giving Theo a bottle or waiting for Sadie's soccer game to start --- the perfect book for young dads to stash in their murses.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
Also on the positive side, Chabon doesn't make the mistake of defining manhood as the opposite of womanhood. The meaningful comparison to men is not women but boys. Chabon seems to understand this.
But on the negative side, Chabon makes little effort to say anything about manhood. Instead, it's mostly a collection of musings and complaints about being a father and about how the kids these days are living in a world that suppresses their imagination and they're probably going to grow up to be automatons working for a consumer-driven machine that doesn't care about art or creativity but only greed and profit and oh boy back in my day it was different because we appreciated baseball cards and at least our bad TV shows were fuzzy around the edges so that we could think and dream and be interesting unlike today's youth who are just a bunch of gooberheads. That's paraphrasing, but that's basically Chabon's POV.
On manhood, about the only thing that Chabon has to say is that men are characterized by feigned competence. They don't know what they're doing but it's their manly proclivity to pretend that they do. Er, okay, thanks for that insight. (Can I have my 7 hours back?)
I suspect the reason Chabon doesn't have much to say about manhood is because his values are so cartoonishly, Berkleyishly liberal. My values are fairly liberal, too, but I am at least able to acknowledge the existence and merits of the conservative POV. And I must say that a healthy dose of conservativism seems necessary to talk meaningfully about manhood. Words like duty, loyalty, sacrifice, responsibility, and discipline seem to be the main qualities that separate men/adults from boys/children, and yet they are completely absent from Chabon's vocabulary. Instead, he'll talk about passion and imagination and open-mindedness and tolerance. Fine qualities to be sure, but, uh... things that tend to characterize children more than adults.
Bottom line: I would give this book 3 stars if it were re-named to "Opinions on the Demise of Our Vulnerable Children in a Capitalist, George-Bush-Era Society (Plus 5 bonus chapters on how incompetent I am / men are!)".
P.S. - Michael Lewis's Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood was, for me, a much more interesting and insightful look at fatherhood. And William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education was easily the best book I've read on what it means to be an adult.
As much as I didn't want to compare their writing (which strikes me as horribly unfair), I got a lot of food for thought from Waldman's book but I fell in love with Chabon's book. His writing pleased me immensely. The way he puts words together thrilled me and amused me and touched me. So much so that I think I'll just spend the rest of this review cramming as many little excerpts in as I can. Why listen to me go on and on about how much I loved this book when you can experience it for yourself?
Consider his essay the "Splendors of Crap." Have you ever heard a more accurate description of modern children's movies than this:
At least once a month I take my kids to see a new "family movie"--the latest computer-generated piece of animated crap. Please don't oblige me to revisit the last one even long enough to name the film, let alone describe it. Anyway, you know the one I mean: set in a zoo, or in a forest, or on farm, or under the sea, or in "Africa," or in an effortlessly hilarious StorybookLandTM where magic, wonder and make-believe are ironized and mocked except at the moments when they are tenderly invoked to move units. I believe but am not prepared to swear that the lead in this weekend's version may have been a neurotic lion, or a neurotic bear, or a neurotic rat, or a neurotic chicken. Chances are good that the thing featured penguins; for a while, the movies have all been featuring penguins. Naturally, there were the legally required 5.5 incidences of humor-stimulating flatulence per hour of running time. A raft of bright pop-punk tunes on the soundtrack, alternating with familiar numbers culled with art and cruelty from the storehouse of parental nostalgia.
Chabon has a gift for writing about the little moments of life and making them instantly familiar and relatable but then layering on his own unique style and viewpoint in a way that makes these essays as delicious and satisfying to read as dark chocolate or a warm roll with butter (or substitute your guilty delight here). As my Little One embarks on his school career, I've begun to realize that the sheer amount of papers he'll generate in the coming years could account for an entire forest of trees dying. So I thoroughly enjoyed "The Memory Hole," in which Chabon writes about dealing with the creative works of four children. Let's read a little of it, shall we?
Almost every school day, at least one of my four children comes home with art: a drawing, a painting, a piece of handicraft, a construction-paper assemblage, an enigmatic apparatus made from pipe cleaners, sparkles and clay. And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash. My wife and I have to remember to shove the things down deep, lest one of the kids stumble across the ruin of his or her laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca wedged in with the junk mail and the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt. But there is so much of the stuff; we don't know what else to do with it. We don't toss all of it. We keep the good stuff--or what strikes us, in the Zen of the instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail, as good. As worthier somehow; more vivid, more elaborate, more accurate, more sweated over.
In typing that last excerpt, I realized that what makes Chabon's writing so good is how specific he is. He doesn't just say "We throw it in the trash and make sure it is buried deep." He describes the art ("laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca"--who among us has NOT made one of these or had one given to us?) and the trash ("the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt"). It is this specificity and detail that delights me and creates such memorable and relatable writing.
Yet I think Chabon's true genius is taking a specific event like dealing with the flood of artwork from your children and turning it into a deeper, more philosophical musing. Consider the end of the essay excerpted above:
The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life. It's not that I don't take enough pictures, though I don't, or that I don't keep a diary, though iCal and my monthly Visa bill are the closest I come to a thoughtful prose record of events. Every day is like a kid's drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.
I wish I could keep going; I must have marked at least 30 other passages that I thought were particularly memorable or amazing or just spoke to me. Like his essay "Radio Silence," which talks about how listening to the radio can suddenly make you a time traveler--winging you back to the first moment you heard that song.
I had every intention of giving this book away for a giveaway when I was done with it, but I can't. This is a keeper. This is a book I want to keep close by: to dip into when I need to be reminded what good writing is, or when I face the inevitable moment when my son asks me about my past and I need to walk the same tightrope Chabon does when his kids ask him whether he's ever tried drugs1, or when I just want to relax and revel in what a gifted writer can do with English language.
It's a weird little niche he's covering in this collection of columns and articles: write something profound in every half a dozen pages. No, not merely anecdotal (even though you can draw on anecdotes), but profound. This isn't Seinfeld riffing on men and remote controls, there's more reverb, a slower pace, the camera panning back (think of, say, `The West'). I think I would have enjoyed anecdotes - with occasional insights or musing - but found the gravitas hard to take. So he's not writing, for example, about his brother, but about `brotherhood'; not about differences between his upbringing and that of his kids, but about what children today have lost.
I think this is an important part of his appeal. When something resonates with a reader they're not merely having a wry smile of recognition, no, they're sagely nodding as part of some societal or human absolute. The grand scope (complemented hugely by the elevated language) tells them they're not just some schmo schlepping (is that enough Jewish references - he has a few of those) through their isolated incidental life, instead they're raised to archetype, to avatar. Funny how I can relish this sort of thing in poetry, but react to it here. Some of that may be my own anglo-centrism banging into Chabon's manifest destiny - so many of his absolutes are blindly parochial (it so fits that these columns were written by a guy from a country which has never recognised the irony of `World Series Baseball'). And if I had have grown up closer to his postcode maybe I would have felt more self important than alienated.
Well, sure I would have. Those mixed feelings I referred to? I was wading through the articles, appreciating the able writing but distancing myself from the underlying presumption that his individual experience was ... Experience, Wisdom, Universality ... when I bumped into one particular column (`Normal Time') and heard myself saying, "Yeah. Exactly. That is SO true. He's nailed it. Isn't that precisely what it's like." And then laughing at myself for being so easily seduced the moment my experience resonated with his, feeling part of this Gnostic club.
And I'm uncomfortable with the club thing, especially the men's club thing. Where I've bumped into it personally it felt pretty pathetic to have as your claim to being special, as some vital comfort to your feelings of identity, the fact that you have a Y chromosome - something you, in no sense, achieved. The most grounded men I've come across might find themselves in male contexts (e.g. sport), but they have no need to dwell on this, and are just as comfortable if there are women around. Sure their masculinity is an important part of who they are, but, importantly, this is incidental to how they view themselves and others. They don't need to be groomed with reassurances that they are `a man', and that makes them special - any more than, say, their nationality ("Never forget, son, that you're Aryan, and that makes all the difference."). It does seem to make a difference if you force everything through this lens - it's self fulfilling, and why, for example, if a male boss is a jerk to everyone, somehow he's a misogynist whenever that jerk behaviour is directed towards a female. [Disclaimer: yes, of course, some bosses *are* misogynists. But some are just jerks, and this distinction is important.] The column I most related to ("Normal Time") I immediately read to my wife because we'd previously noticed how every week seemed to be, "unusual." And reading an essay to my wife? Sounds like the sort of nerdy thing Chabon would do with his own geeky amateur family, including wife and daughters. How is a Dr Who obsession about manhood? In my family this is exclusively the realm of sisters and nieces - but that's a coincidence, it's not saying anything poignant about `womenhood.' How is it particularly masculine to find an old song takes you back to a certain time and place?
In grouping all these experiences and observations under his `manhood' title, Chabon is playing to a market that seems to want or need this club membership - including all these women in the amazon comments who felt they had to exclusively give this book to their sons/husbands/various male relatives. [Woah - just occurred to me as I wrote that sentence that I was given this book by my sister. One of my smart, generous and much nicer than me sisters who remembers birthdays and makes an effort - and had no idea about my oversensitivity to `Manhood' forums.] People who feel this need to essentially define themselves and others by their gender, when it's so often irrelevant. This isn't to say there aren't distinctives, and that some of the columns in this collection don't validly run with them. But it is saying it's overstated.
I suspect if I knew Chabon I'd find him an interesting, likeable guy. But I wouldn't know why he had to hang all these sorts of thoughts in the restrictive, occasionally misleading and overblown gallery of (cue reverb) `Manhood'. He should just grow a pair and re-release this as, `Michael Chabon's idiosyncratic distillations'. [In the interests of previously spurned racial stereotyping, for US readers, that last line was ironic. As was the first one in these brackets.]