Anyone who reads Details magazine will recognize many of the essays in this collection as they first appeared there. Even so, it is great to have them collected in one place and a pleasure to read them again. Chabon really is a strong prose stylist, especially in the essay form.
The best thing about these essays is how much they ring true, particularly to a man of Chabon's generation. The flexibility of fact and truth is problematic in his other essay collection, Maps and Legends, but here, almost everything hits close to home.
Essentially, these essays center on what it means to be a man in all his incarnations in 21st century America. All of them are engaging but some were real high points. In "William and I" he takes off from a complement on being a good father to discuss how the standards for good fatherhood are still low compared to what it takes to be considered a good mother. In "I Feel Good About My Murse" his muses over getting a bag in which to carry all his stuff. In "The Amateur Family" he reclaims the meaning of the word amateur to describe his efforts to bring up four children as "geeks". Along the way he also talks deeply about his own childhood, his experiences as a divorced/remarried man, and his writing career, among other things.
Overall, there's hardly a sour note in the book. It is an excellent and easy read, particularly for a man of a certain age (and the women who want to know him better).
Michael Chabon's collection of essays reveals many of the sources that helped create the characters in his stories but also the past that made him who he is. We see the development of a interesting mind dealing with a disintegrating family while immersing himself in comic books, movies, baseball cards, and science fiction. We also see some of the origins of the material for his future stories. He is able to write about large themes like differences between men/boys and women/girls, cultural mores, childhood play, and the psychology of the seventies but he does so without leaving the everyday life of children, teenagers and adults.
The essays on how childhood has changed for his children compared to his own were the most compelling. A world of playing in the "wilderness" free of adults has been taken over by play dates, structured team sports and much more with parents tagging along. The simple ride around the neighborhood on a bike has all but disappeared with our fear of kidnappings and disappearance. He admits he has also fallen into this even though the number of child kidnappings has remained fairly constant over the last 30 years.
The collection is touching but mostly funny and for those of us in the same age group it brings back many memories about our youth, parents, hometowns, colleges and now our spouses and children. His ability to put words together in a way that is both informative and something to behold continues to impress just like his earlier books.
It's hard to escape a tone of professorial egotism when writing a collection of essays. Perhaps that's my biggest problem with this book: it feels like I'm in an undergraduate English course, with the literary "expert" glossing the male experience for me. However, Chabon and his peers have always contended that good literature should be entertaining as well as stimulating (see his afterwards to "Gentlemen of the Road"), and "Manhood for Amateurs" is full of keen insight measured by a warm sense of wit. I suspect that some readers may find it hard to relate with Chabon's experiences: he is, after all, a career intellectual who currently makes his home in Berkeley, CA and grew up during the '70s. If you consider discussion of wearing a "murse" (a man purse) to be beyond your sensibilities or despise rosy reminisces of mid-century American childhood, some of these essays may not resonate. Overall, however, Chabon does an admirable job of using personal antecodes to enliven greater discussions on the meaning of manhood. "Manhood for Amateurs" is a valuable read in an era where the male experience is becoming increasingly diverse.
I have loved Chabon's novels for years, but with this book he shows such deep insight into men of his (my) generation that I briefly wondered if his talents are wasted on fiction. But then I remembered how much I loved Summerland, possibly my favorite novel of the millennium so far, and I simply hope that he gives us many more books of whatever kind he feels like writing.
Chabon's book is basically a collection of essays on being a man. The subtitle is "The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son." The theme is a perfect counterpoint to his wife's book (Ayelet Waldman's "Bad Mother"), but while Waldman's book stayed on track, Chabon's book takes delightful side-trips into the lands of comic books, baseball and listening to the radio.
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.
By turns poignant, exciting, scary and resigned, Manhood for Amateurs is just about what you'd expect from a great novelist turning his attention inward. He's a grand writer and a Thinker in the old sense of the word. He suffers a little when his source material is trapped in reality instead of the fictions he normally spins... in his case, truth is not really stranger than fiction. Other than an early-in-life divorce, which he confronts squarely albeit briefly, his home life seems unfettered by anything other than the usual chaos: a successful and accomplished wife, healthy and happy children, a fulfilling career. We may be envious, but it lacks the lurid appeal of an Augusten Burroughs. But Chabon is honest, sometimes painfully so, about the realities of fatherhood and - to a lesser degree - husbandhood and sonhood. After the disappointment of Michael Lewis' new book on the same topic (and the utter crapulence that is most books for fathers-to-be) this was one I'd heartily recommend to anyone who is (or, like me, is about to become) a father. And, in the final evaluation, he could write a shopping list and his prose would still be a joy to read. That alone makes this worthwhile.