"Manhood For Amateurs" - Another Book Review

Over this past year I have become a big fan of Michael Chabon. How it's taken me this long to discover the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, I don't know, especially given the many elements in his works that I can relate to. Wonder Boys, for instance, takes place in roughly the same part of Western Pennsylvania where I grew up (the movie adaptation is an all-time favorite too), and being a comic fan-boy, Kavalier & Clay, for which Chabon won the Pulitzer, kept me enthralled through all 600-plus pages. I had just started in on Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands with Mysteries of Pittsburgh waiting in the wings when I learned Chabon had just released a new book centered around masculine identity--another topic that strongly resonates with me. Needless to say, I dropped everything and went straight to the bookstore to get my copy of Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of Husband, Father, and Son.

Plowing through the book in two days, I wasn't disappointed. It felt like I had just mentally gorged myself on a large satisfying meal, and now required a long afternoon in order for it to digest. In exploring what a man is in today, Chabon approaches the issue, drawing from his own personal experiences as a husband, father and son to create a mosaic of the man he has become over the course of these moments. But Chabon doesn't point to himself as someone who has figured it all out; rather, he hands the reader his flaws, mistakes and hurts, and tempers them with the corresponding insights, joys and successes that make manhood worthwhile.

Each essay takes a conversational tone that makes Chabon seem as if he's talking to you over coffee. In fact, it doesn't matter that he ignores the the conventional advice given to writers about avoiding twenty-dollar words when a five-dollar one will suffice; Chabon is one of the few people who can pull this off without losing the reader or coming across as pretentious. Still, I kept a dictionary handy just in case, since his vocabulary choices could crash the word-of-the-day app on your iPhone. (No one's accused me of being smart anyway.)

Chabon draws from past memories, random objects, current events, pop culture, and recent moments in his life as the context within which he interpret modern day masculinity--a box of Bisquick and traditional gender roles; comics and the feminine mystique; a grocery store encounter and parental intimacy. But, of all Manhood's stories, my favorite was the aptly titled "Faking It", where Chabon contrasts replacing a towel rack against navigating a blizzard with an SUV to illustrate the difference in convincing his family of his competency by masking his ineptitude as opposed to gaining their faith through genuine self-confidence.

Of the many aspects of Chabon's life, it's that of a husband and father where he finds the greatest fulfillment. The affection he holds for his wife, fellow writer Ayelet Waldman (Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace) is evident, as is the pride he takes in parenting their four children, Sophie, 14; Zeke, 12; Rosie, 8; and Abe, 6.

"... there's nothing I work harder at than being a good father, unless it's being a good husband ... I define being a good father in precisely the same terms that we ought to define being a good mother--doing my part to handle and stay on top of the endless parade of piddly shit. And like good mothers all around the world, I fail everyday in my ambition to do the work, to make it count, to think ahead and hang in there through the tedium..."

It's with this same level of honesty throughout Manhood, that Chabon demonstrates a comfort with his own masculinity. And he doesn't just accept it, he owns it, doing so with equal amounts of fascination, humility and appreciation. In the end, Manhood makes it safe for men to celebrate the beauty of who we all really are--amateurs.

To read more of Michael Chabon's work, check out his page at Amazon.com. I also recommend this NY Times article profiling Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman's lives as parents.

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