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LitStaff Recs: The Empathy Exams & Three Parts Dead

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams blends memoir, literary, cultural and moral investigation, and its essays are rich, astute, and candid. This is Jamison’s second book (following a 2011 novel The Gin Closet), winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize that went on to the New York Times bestseller list. Jamison […]

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LitStack Rec: Changing My Mind & Hunger Makes the Wolf

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by 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, is to learn something, whether the topic is snow camping or religious […]

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LitStack Recs: Crash Course & Ninefox Gambit

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 […]

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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 […]

 

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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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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
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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 […]