14 July 2010

Book Review: Manhood for Amateurs

Title: Manhood for Amateurs
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: 11 May 2010
Date Finished:  8 July 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading ResolutionsHogwarts Reading Challenge, Non-Fiction Five,

The Short and Sweet of It
In 39 well-written and insightful essays, Chabon reflects on what it means to be a man, circumcision, raising daughters, divorce, honesty in parenting, the loss of childhood freedom, murses, and I'll stop now. His beautiful prose and relatable anecdotes along with his observant and astute ideas make this a definite finalist for my best of 2010 list.

A Bit of a Ramble
In my review of Dostoevsky's House of the Dead, I talk about how I sometimes miss the artful weaving of words common with classic novels when I read contemporary texts.  Well, Manhood for Amateurs is making me sort of contradict myself. Chabon masters language, and the prose in this collection of essays impressed me with its sesquipedalian but unpretentious use of words.  While I'm not a fan of the ostentatious and unnecessary inclusion of $10 words, I am a fan of the perfectly correct use of words, and sometimes it is the less everyday speech that offers specificity and clarity. Hmm..I guess what I'm trying to say is that the way Chabon tells a story rocks.

The basic concept of the book is that it is a collection of essays on being a father, husband, and son, on what it means to be a man. Chabon makes women nod in agreement almost immediately as he talks about how disparate the criteria for good fathering and good mothering are. While he is praised for doing nothing more than buying groceries with a kid on his arm, he's convinced that a woman would have to "perform an emergency tracheotomy with a Bic pen on her eldest child while simultaneously nursing her infant and buying two weeks' worth of healthy but appealing break-time snacks for the entire cast of Lion King, Jr." in order to receive the same praise. Exactly.

Alongside this focus on manliness, he has also included various essays discussing contemporary methods of parenting on childhood, and it is these essays I found most interesting. It is always nice to see one's own ideas expressed articulately on the page, especially when so many seem to disagree, and that occurred for me on page 63.
The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

I remember being separated from the watching eyes of adults for long stretches of time in my youth, converging on expanses of grass and trees where I and my friends were sheltered from watchful adult eyes. Playing baseball and kickball, putting pennies on the tracks in the hope of a train smooshing it all to unreadability, walking the tracks (like in Stand by Me except with no leeches or dead bodies), and playing imaginary games like pirates seeking treasure, explorers on an island inhabited by overly large-toothed beasts, etc. Many times, I even played in these places by myself, fully immersed in a world I had created. No adults allowed.  Today I see my friends' kids barely allowed to play in the fenced-in backyard without supervision, and I'm saddened. It seems Chabon is as well.
...our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of unhealthy and diseased fixation...Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map.  If children are not permitted - not taught - to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

We do a great disservice to children when we protect them to the point of smothering, of inhibiting their ability to create something all their own or to face dangers real and imaginary.  But if I say this, I am just condescendingly reminded that I can't possibly understand because I don't have children.  Well ha! Here is someone with children who agrees with me. *insert totally childish, sticking-out-tongue face here*  Oooooh, found one....

On a side note, this book was my first for sticky notes, and I quickly discovered a problem.  I was slapping a sticky note on practically every page.  I forgot how often I write in good books, how much marginalia graces the pages and how many sentences are underlined by the time I'm finished. I had to stop myself only 50 pages in or I would have gone through almost all of my new freaking sticky notes! I may have to go back to writing in books... for the really thoughtful ones at least.

The Filmic Connection
One essay I would really like to see put up on screen is "I feel good about my murse", a lovely piece on the social stigma of and personal necessity for some sort of man bag.  I can see an Indie short featuring the progression from wallet to black masculine diaper bag to pink and girly diaper bag to messenger bag to murse.  I love it.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

The Book Lady's Blog; The Girl from the Ghetto; S. Krishna's Books; Find Your Next Book Here; Fizzy Thoughts;

Question:  What are your thoughts on murses?


  1. You liked this a little more than I did. I found it almost too rambling by times. Of course, I also mixed up my dates and will be posting the review tomorrow instead of today. Silly me. I really enjoyed it, but more a borrow for me :)

  2. When we got this at the Algonquin, I suspected I would really dislike it. I decided to give it the 5-page test when I got home, and found that the things he said in those first few page were ones I could relate to, or at least that I recognized from what Jason goes through as an involved, active parent of our children. People always assume dads have no place in child rearing, so that if dads pitch in, it makes them special. I'm definitely looking forward to this!

  3. What a fabulous cover! I haven't read any Chabon yet, but I have Kavalier and Clay on my shelf, just waiting for me to get on track!

  4. I've got the same problem with sticky note overuse! And with Chabon, I can see how it would get to be a 3-pack book!!!

  5. This does sound REALLY good! I have two copies of this... in my BEA box, lol..

    I love where you said, "But if I say this, I am just condescendingly reminded that I can't possibly understand because I don't have children. Well ha! Here is someone with children who agrees with me. *insert totally childish, sticking-out-tongue face here* Oooooh, found one...." I know exactly waht you mean about those comments, haha! Sounds like Chabon is a smart man.

  6. I tried one of Chabon's audios and I had to stop listening after a disc. Don't know what the problem was. But this one might work for me. Everything I heard about it is brilliant (I loved Jenner's review). Didn't his wife write a book similar to this one, only from the female point of view?

  7. I soooo want to listen to this one. First, I want some sort of insight into the male brain, and given that my first kiddo is a little man, I'm interested in the childrearing bits. Overall, it just sounds like a great read, and I haven't read any of Chabon's other stuff yet. I found that when I've started with other authors' memoirs or essays (Paul Auster comes to mind), I'm sometimes more willing to jump into their fiction.

  8. Amy - There was definitely a bit of rambling; I just like that! :)

    Amanda - I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    Aarti - This was my first Chabon, but I'm looking forward to reading more of him.

    Jill - Yeah, I had to stop with the sticky notes. Things were getting crazy.

    Jenny - Us childless people obviously have no brains when it comes to children. :)

    Sandy - Jenners is why I picked this up in the first place! She did write sort of a companion book, and I have it on my to buy list already.

    Andi - You should definitely give this book a try; it was a really great read.

  9. Oh Michael Chabon <3 His writing really is quite something. I loved his previous essay collection, Maps and Legends, so I really think I'd love this too.

  10. I agree about his style...his writing isn't so dense that you can't understand it, yet he has a knack for choosing beautiful words.

  11. Ana - I'll have to pick up Maps and Legends.

    Jill - Exactly!

  12. I'd be tempted to pick this book up for the title alone. Love the quote on the differences between how mothers and fathers are judged.

  13. I put the audio on my library's hold list last week. Can't wait!

  14. Stephanie - You should definitely give this book a try. It had pages and pages of quotable lines.

    Stacy - I bet this would be great on audio.

  15. God ... wasn't this just such a brilliant book? Just reading your review reminded me again of how much I loved it and why I kept my copy to reread. And you are so right about the wilderness of childhood disappearing ... I try as much as possible to give this to my son (while still watching him to keep him safe). It is one of my goals as a mother and when I see him running around the backyard with his friends and creating imaginary scenarios and fighting monsters in the sewer, I just smile to myself and think "You're giving him a real childhood despite all odds."

  16. Jenners - I am so glad I read your review and decided to read this. It really was an excellent book. Good for you on the parenting front! The imaginary worlds I created and the adventures I had in them are my favorite part of childhood.


Talk to me baby!