Moms who like to read (and write) about motherhood have had it pretty good over the last decade or so. Led by a cadre of “mom bloggers” and others, women have found new ways to connect over the minutiae, the often thankless drudgery, and even the dark side of modern motherhood. No longer are images of motherhood isolated to the hazy pink aisles of Hallmark’s Mother’s Day section; instead, moms have discovered camaraderie amid chaos as they read brutally honest confessions of the anguish, boredom and terrifying love to which mothers can now admit. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon’s own wife, Ayelet Waldman, has become famous (or, in some circles, notorious) for her own brilliantly written but painfully honest writings about marriage and motherhood.
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 on January 6, 2011