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Category: Memoir

Category: Memoir

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LitStaff Recs: This Boy’s Life & Kiss & Tell

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, by Tobias Wolff  First published in 1989, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life has since become a classic of the contemporary memoir, the kind of book you can finish, like I did, in nearly one sitting. Wolff, the author of numerous works of fiction, including short stories, novels, and a second memoir, […]

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LitStack Review: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

The Princess Diarist Carrie Fisher Blue Rider Press Release Date:  November 22, 2016 ISBN 978-0-3991-7359-2 In her 1984 semi-biographical novel Postcards from the Edge, readers were introduced to actor Carrie Fisher’s wry wit, her self-deprecating insight, and her lack of calculated artifice. Over 30 years later, The Princess Diarist bridges Postcards, giving us a younger […]

 

manhood-for-amatuers

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, essays by Michael Chabon

You know a book on fatherhood is going to be interesting when the title includes the word amateurs. The trope of fatherly wisdom, borne of experience and dispensed with measured calm, is a wonderful thing, but how realistic it?

There are some great recent memoirs about fathers. Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland and Will Boast’s Epilogue come to mind, narratives in which fathers run the spectrum, from brave to flawed and back again.

Rarer is the memoir that reflects on what being a father is actually like, and for that matter, how men come to be fathers after being sons and boyfriends and husbands. Chabon’s collection is not a memoir per se, but a series of essays grouped thematically around personal and cultural ideas and behaviors connected to fatherhood, as well as nostalgia for sixties childhood and seventies youth, and the flaws and failures that influence how one fathers his children. There are essays too, on boyhood, and boyfriend-hood, which indirectly, and sometimes directly speak to that same self, to the complex mix of parenting and maleness.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The book’s epigraph by G.K. Chesterton forefronts the deprecating stance, but Chabon has more to tell us. At the supermarket, he is complemented by a stranger simply for taking care of his kid, a double standard he quickly points out (to the reader, anyway), “The handy thing about being a father is that the historical standard is so pitifully low.” The differing criteria for what makes a good father and a good mother is skewed, to say the least, and pointing it out early in the book lends authority, credibility and likeability. Here’s Chabon on his own father:

My father, born in the gray-and-silver Movietone year of 1938, was part of the generation of Americans who, in their twenties and thirties, approached the concepts of intimacy, of authenticity and open emotion, with a certain tentative abruptness, like people used to automatic transmission learning how to drive a stick shift.

One of my favorite essays, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” is  unabashedly nostalgic, but also serves an a kind of think-piece, an important one, on the detriment of too closely watching our children, not allowing them the historical freedom children have had to explore, to wander, and the cost to their with imaginations and experience of self: “The sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone; jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked STAFF ONLY. When children roller-skate or ride their bikes, they go forth armored as for battle, and their parents typically stand nearby.”

There is rumination on the failure of his first marriage (“The Heartbreak Kid”), a sad but inevitable arc that ends in “operatic arguments, all night ransackings of the contents of our souls,” as well as on cooking, (“The Art of Cake”), that nicely braids the book’s larger ideas of contemporary fatherhood and its “dissolving boundaries, shifting economies, loosened definitions of male and female, of parent and child.” Circumcision, Jose Canseco (held up for reflection alongside Roberto Clemente), comic book heroines and Legos, are some of the objects of the author’s contemplation.

Chabon is not a perfect father, but that, the essays help us understand, is a false expectation—one that needs to evolve and change, and that’s an opinion you can trust.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2
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LitStack Review: Boy Erased by Garrard Conley

Boy Erased Garrard Conley Riverhead Books Release Date:  May 10, 2016 ISBN 978-1-59463-301-0 It was sheer coincidence that had me reading Garrard Conley’s book about his experience with a conversion therapy program aimed at curing him of the “sin” of homosexuality, but the timing did give my reading of it extra gravitas.  Not that Boy […]

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LitStack Rec: Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place & Moon Girl

Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place, by Annie Proulx The memoir by this award-winning novelist (The Shipping News) and story writer (“Brokeback Mountain,” from Wyoming Stories) centers on the experience of building a home in the titular tract of Montana wilderness—a place, and a house, Proulx comes to love. We learn of the house she builds […]

Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays, by William Styron

Though William Styron is best know for his novels (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice), and a late memoir chronicling his depression (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness), he wrote wonderful essays that draw on his power of insight, intellectual acuity, and deeply felt experience of the world, all couched in the same gorgeous sentences that define his fiction. This makes sense, after all. Styron’s forays into the consciousness of a character like Sophie Zawistowska are the same he trains on himself.

The title essay is a reference to the cigars favored by John Kennedy, and recounts a White House state dinner that Styron (who died in 2006) and other prominent writers attended to honor the recent Nobel Prize winners. It was April, 1962 and the President and First Lady  were at the height of their influence and glamour.

The title’s non-ironic allusion to the Arthurian court lends the essay, and all the essays in this collection, a sense of the past seen with a yearning backward glance. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner said, and with Styron, you get the sense that the glittering as well as the duller episodes take on a lovely sheen when viewed in hindsight.

Here’s Styron on the Kennedy state dinner, as the President and First Lady arrive to receive their guests:

…Jack and Jackie actually shimmered. You have had to be abnormal, perhaps psychotic, to be immune to their dumbfounding appeal. Even Republicans were gaga. They were truly a golden couple, and I am not trying to downplay my own sense of wonder when note that a number of the guests, male and female, appeared so affected by the glamour that their eyes took on a goofy, catatonic gaze.

An aspect of Styron’s voice that has always appealed to me is what I can only describe as a generational drift. I hear in his use of vernacular, his reverence for heroes and distrust of power, a tone that resembles my father’s. Both share a Greatest Generation-inflected style that to some may sound dated, but to this reader’s ear is a comfort, and brings nostalgic passage to an era of mid-century men whose rebellion was rooted in their artistic natures. Like Frank Wheeler in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, it’s a generation who went to war, and against the grain of their time, broke the conformist mode with a devotion to art, not commerce.

Among my favorites here is “A Case of the Great Pox.” It recounts a stay in a military infirmary after Styron was diagnosed with syphilis. He served in the Marine Corps during World War Two, and before basic training ended, was on a ward at the Navel Hospital in Parris Island, South Carolina, otherwise known as The Clap Shack.

The piece encompasses the best of the personal essay form. It combines personal and political history, informative detail (in this case, a history of STDs), and a sharply structured plot that takes us with Styron on the various stages of his syphilitic journey.

Voltaire never let the horrid nature of the illness obtrude upon his own lighthearted view of it—he wrote wittily about the great pox in Candide—and throughout Casanova’s memoirs there are anecdotes about syphilis that the author plainly regards as excruciatingly funny. Making sport of it may have been the only way in which the offspring  of the Enlightenment could come to grips with a pestilence that seemed as immutably fixed in history as war or famine.

The fourteen essays in the slim but affecting collection are astute and readable, and cover such topics as the author’s longtime rivalry with his peer Truman Capote, an early experience with publishing and the censorship of the 1950s; his beloved Vineyard Haven in Martha’s Vineyard.

Mostly I love the soft collision here of harbor and shore, the subtly haunting briny quality that all small towns have when they are situated on the sea. It is often manifested simply in the sounds of the place—sounds unknown to forlorn inland municipalities…these sounds might appear distracting, but as a fussy, easily distracted person who has written three large books within earshot of these sounds, I an affirm that they do not annoy at all.

You could sit down with this book mid-afternoon and consume it by nightfall. It will go too quickly, I guarantee, and require that you start from the beginning and read it again.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2
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Litstack Recs: The Places In-Between & The Silmarillion

The Places In-Between, Rory Stewart In 2002, Rory Stewart made a walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. A scholar of Afghan history and language, he was well grounded the country’s ancient history, and in the grave first years after 9/11, sought to learn “what [Afghanistan] was like now.”  Part memoir, part political and cultural […]