LitStack

for the love of all things wordy

Home /
Tag:  essays

Tag: essays

;

LitStack Recs: Manhood for Amateurs & Low Town

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, essays by Michael Chabon The trope of fatherly wisdom, borne of experience and dispensed with measured calm, is a wonderful thing, but how realistic it? There are memoirs about fathers such as Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland and Will Boast’s Epilogue, in which fathers […]

 

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
;

Gimbling in the Wabe – Why Do People Read Bad Books?

Recently I’ve been reading What Makes This Book So Great, by Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Jo Walton.  In it, she takes various essays regarding the science fiction/fantasy genre originally blogged on Tor.com, and incorporates them under a single cover.  It’s a fascinating read from a well versed and extremely well read woman who […]

Crash Course: essays from where writing and life collide, by Robin Black

The third book from short story writer and novelist Robin Black collects her recent essays, many of which first appeared on the great, and sadly erstwhile literary blog, Beyond the Margins. Crash Course, subtitled essays from where writing and life collide, is aptly divided into two sections. Part One, LIFE (& Writing), is followed by WRITING (& Life), and both perspectives offer insights writers will find instructive and heartening. Crash Course, while lending wisdom on a range of writing and business-of-writing topics, also reads like a memoir, showing us the writer as she reckons with her past and the self that has emerged. I especially appreciated the forthright stance Black takes with her struggles, aspirations, doubt, and sense of accomplishment, all delivered in the deft prose for which her fiction is highly praised.

There is, for example, the late start to her work as a writer—re-married with two small children, battling the dread and desire to write, while at the same time being derailed by agoraphobia. There is too, the sorrow and shame of the years of delayed work, a regret that Black sometimes finds hard to shake. Years later, despite the leap of enrolling in a graduate creative writing program and the subsequent success of two books (a story collection If I loved you I would tell you this, and a novel, Life Drawing), the worry can still persist:

“On any given day, I don’t know if I will be able to write, I don’t know if I will like what I produce…I don’t know whether, if published, it will find readers for whom it ‘succeeds’…I don’t know if I will be publicly insulted or lauded for the work I have done, or ignored.”

That unpredictability, and uncertainty, she points out, is also a state writers seek, even though (or perhaps because) it’s uncomfortable. As Black wisely observes, the rewards that come with its risks are “something for which to be grateful.”

The essay “AD(H)D I” looks at the futility of trapping oneself, and others, in a cage of perfection. As an adult with Attention Deficit Disorder, there is a period in which Black’s life is in a general state of upheaval with lack of focus and follow-through. She encounters the proverbial opposite upon meeting the man who would be her second husband, an organized, seemingly unflappable person who, as Black tells it, brings a sense of order to the chaos—though not without its complications. This orderly, attentive man unwittingly throws her own qualities into a less-attractive high relief:

“…he found my left sneaker, cleaned our clogged gutters, replaced our souring milk, and remembered to pay our bills. The bastard!”

What this essay achieves, as do so many in this collection, is the quick pivot from life to writing. In “AD(H)D I”, the turn takes place as the couple comes to an understanding based on mutual empathy—an event that for Black brings a revelation—that her husband isn’t the one who needs to change. This epiphany, as she next points out, though groundbreaking in real life, isn’t as effective in fiction, adding, “the bar for plausibility is higher in fiction than in fact.” This essay runs early in the collection, but in the facile shift from life to writing we understand how Black means to show us the way each is informed by the other.

 Crash Course is also a lesson in the short essay. Most pieces run two to five pages yet each feels complete, and effortless. Black looks at a range of issues, among them: on writing query letters (including the author’s own. Tip: think voice); on inaction in fiction; revision and letting go of first ideas; on the excellence of adverbs (shout out to Truly, Madly, Deeply); true-life anecdote versus the narrative needs of story; and some qualities of distinctive fiction (hint: momentum, authority, and “a confident intelligence”).

One of the most fascinating threads in this collection is Black’s relationship with her father, a brilliant, complicated, and troubled man whose role in her personal history is clearly powerful. In matters of achievement, we learn, the elder Black’s view was “If it isn’t to be a work of genius, it isn’t worth writing,” a standard that rendered Black, in her words, “a study in blockage.” She writes, “Even as I battle the toxic standards of success that my father breathed into my dreams, I find myself grateful for his example of how fiercely one can try to fight a demon down.”

That personal history made me wildly curious about this larger-than-life formative relationship and its role in forging the writer from her nascent self. I can guess an author as inventive, smart, and anchored by deep feeling as Black has plenty of projects in the queue, any of which I’d eagerly read, and it would be thrilling if that memoir were among them.

Read more about Robin Black here.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2
;

LitStack Recs: Changing My Mind & Tor.com

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays Zadie Smith This collection of essays came about by accident, Zadie Smith tells us in the foreword, but the voice and curiosity behind it makes this read seamless and satisfying. My hope, as a reader of essays, whether the topic is snow camping or religious fanatics or Monarch butterflies, is […]

;

LitStack Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things Jenny Lawson Flatiron Books Release Date:  September 22, 2015 ISBN 978-1-250-07700-4 Jenny Lawson is the woman behind The Bloggess website, which has won numerous awards for its brilliant writing and its biting humor.  She herself says of the site, “It’s mainly dark humor mixed with brutally honest […]

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

The Best American Essays, 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

The Best American series, which in 2014 featured editions of short stories, travel, mystery and sports writing, along with comics, infographics, nonrequired reading and other genres, has become an institution on its own. My introduction to Best American was through the short fiction series, and a now-classic edition edited by Tobias Wolff. The stories chosen that year (1994), such as Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t,” “Things Left Undone,” by Chris Tilghman, and Laura Glen Louis’ “Fur,” made up my introduction to contemporary short fiction, and it’s no accident, I think, that those voice-driven, deeply intimate stories instilled in me a very specific excitement about what a short story could do.

It’s with some embarrassment I confess my introduction to the essay series (which launched in 1986) turned out to be 2013’s, edited by Cheryl Strayed (the series editor is Robert Atwan). And yet, I feel that in a similar way, the essays n that volume will turn out to influence me in a similar way. Strayed has selected a range of voices, each with its intimate, usually confessional tone, and as she notes in the introduction, “made me feel, for the brief time I spent reading them, as if the rest of the world had fallen away.”

Still, the subjects couldn’t be more different. From Walter Kirn’s great “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” to Zadie Smith’s meditation on Joni Mitchell, “Some Notes on Attunement,” the investigations run from deep in memory to responses to the cultural moment. And while the term “essay” has become increasingly broad, the selections here encompass a dizzying set of categories—memoir, creative nonfiction, cultural and historical interrogations—it seems to have become an umbrella designation for a range of approaches and sensibilities, and extends to essays that are downright story-like.

From a contemporary standpoint, it would seem that the essay is a kind of literary rock star, and with a charismatic forefather in Montaigne, but according to series editor Robert Atwan, that was not always the case. During his years as a grad student of literature in the 1940s, the essay had a very different standing:

…literary works then were so exclusively identified with poems, novels, and plays that the privileging [of fictive over nonfictive works] barely went noticed. When int eh mid-sixties I took a seminar on Ralph Waldo Emerson with the brilliant critic and quintessential Emersonian Richard Poirier, we concentrated on Emerson as a thinker and a prose stylist, as the central figure of American literature, but I don’t recall a single bit of discussion that regarded Emerson as an essayist, as a writer wholly engaged with a particular literary genre….Essays were a minor genre, at best…

In Strayed’s selections you’ll find remembrances of the counterculture sixties, a memoir of a harrowing car crash, a nostalgic look at an out-of-print encyclopedia, and a heart-rending remembrance of a father unable to love his wife and daughters.

Read more, here.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2