Manhood for Amateurs

What is it with me and Michael Chabon’s essays? I mulishly resisted reading Maps and Legends because I thought his essays about books would be self-indulgent and self-regarding; instead, they were bright, insightful, funny, and touching. I loved that book. Still, I kept seeing Manhood for Amateurs in the bookstore, and recommended by bloggers I trust, and I dug in my heels. Somehow, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay can completely electrify me, but Chabon writing about Chabon? Maybe some other time.

But I read it, of course. And I loved it. I was reading it on an airplane, and I kept chuckling aloud, and saying, “Yes!” and “Right on!” and “Well…” out loud. The person next to me (who was taking a very, very long, like 400-page, practice test on acupuncture) must have thought I was nuts. But these essays, which are personal, and which tell the various things that make Chabon the man he is today, were wonderful. They were sly, and witty, and gentle, and opinionated. They were smart and insightful and unsparing of his own ego. They were even wise, when called for, and humble about not being wise when he knew he didn’t have real wisdom. He admitted to mistakes (something I find very attractive in an essayist) and confessed to love in both right and wrong places: his children, his ex-father-in-law, his boyhood freedom, his brother, a former friend, his wife. He doesn’t pose. He doesn’t aim for glory. He just talks about the way he learned to be a boy, and then a man, with all that implies in his life: husband, son, father, brother, lover, friend, writer.

I could quote from this book forever, but I want you to read it. So I’ll just give you two of my favorite pieces, so you’ve got the taste of it and you’ll be inspired to snag this the next time you’re at the bookstore. In “I Feel Good About My Murse,” Chabon says that

One of the fundamental axioms of masculine self-regard  is that the tools and appurtenances of a man’s life must be containable within the pockets of his jacket and pants. Wallet, keys, gum, show or ball game tickets, Kleenex, condoms, cell phone, maybe a lighter and a pack of cigarettes: just cram in all in there, motherfucker…. The necessary corollary to this inviolate principle is that no man, ever, ought to carry a purse. Purses are for women; a purse is basically a vagina with a strap.

He goes on to explain the meandering process by which he went through laptop computer cases, satchels, knapsacks, and diaper bags before accepting his destiny: the man-purse. And he touches, gently and with humor, on the way he’s shed some other baggage by picking this bag up.

In my other favorite essay, “Cosmodemonic,” Chabon talks about the way his MFA program at UC-Irvine affected his transition into real adulthood (or I guess I should say manhood.) Until that experience, he says, he idolized authors and artists like Henry Miller, Jean-Luc Godard, and Marlon Brando — antisocial, misogynistic, “big-souled,” contemptuous men. In other words, says Chabon, he was a little shit, completely involved in his own version of himself.

What happened when he arrived at Irvine was that he encountered a room full of grownups, over half of them women. These people had no time for his idols.

They had left real jobs, made real sacrifices, to come to Irvine. They had mortgages and health problems, troubled marriages, debts, and obligations. And so I was obliged, or at least I felt I was, to rise to the standard they set: in their writing, for the treatment of human emotion and relationships; in their lives, for seizing this chance to learn and share and get immersed in the work; and in the workshop itself, women and men, for undertaking that collective work with respect, with charity, with tolerance, and above all — most frightening to me at the time — with no patience for the pretense and callowness and trite antisocial pose of some little shit. In the end, I think that’s the only cure for the little shit: regular exposure to the healing rays of healthy disillusion, in particular the hard-earned skepticism of grown women. Call it the Yoko Ono effect.

Right on.

So I loved this book. I have more respect for Chabon because of it. And maybe, just maybe, next time, I won’t hesitate to pick up a book of his essays; instead, I’ll say, “Oh, right, he’s a fellow Doctor Who fan! This guy’s for me.”

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25 Responses to Manhood for Amateurs

  1. christina says:

    I’ve seen this book everywhere, but other than that, have no idea who this man is or why he is so great!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, are you in for a treat! Chabon wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (a Pulitzer winner), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and several other novels. Kavalier and Clay is, in my opinion, dizzyingly brilliant (if long, but I don’t mind that.) Give him a try!

  2. J.G. says:

    Sometimes the famous are great in their roles as authors, movie stars, ballplayers, whatever, but not people you’d actually like to know. (An evening talk by a major poet taught me this lesson the hard way, through disappointment.) Chabon sounds like he might be an exception to this pattern, though. How nice!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I divide the famous into people I would, or would not, like to have dinner with. Rousseau, no; Voltaire, in a heartbeat. Jefferson, no; Ben Franklin, absolutely. Like that. Chabon, yes please!

  3. Dear Jenny,

    I was completely put off by this book when I first attempted–alientated by a case of TMI. But your review suggests that my mood was off (I’m a very moody reader) and that this may be worth another try. Thank you!

    shalom,

    Steven

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, well, memoirs can frequently be TMI. But I really liked this one. You might want to try Maps and Legends, which gets his essayist’s style without being quite so personal.

  4. I really loved this book when I read it back in March. Like you, “Cosmodemonic” was one of my favourite essays, though I think my absolute favourite was probably “The Hand on My Shoulder”, talking about his relationship with his ex-father-in-law.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Claire, I loved that one, too. And A Woman of Valor. Actually, I loved too many of them to list. I thought it was terrific.

  5. I love and adore Michael Chabon, but my reluctance to read memoirs or things like them kept me from reading Manhood for Amateurs. But it sounds wonderful, especially “Cosmodemonic”. Right onto the reading list it goes!

    • Jenny says:

      I’m pleased I convinced you, though I like lots of memoirs (not all!) I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to reading your thoughts!

  6. Christy says:

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed this as I’m planning to read it this year, as a sorta follow-up to his wife Ayelet Waldman’s book, Bad Mother.

    Also, I wonder what questions are involved in a 400-page acupuncture test?

    • Jenny says:

      What did you think of Bad Mother? I’ve never read anything by Waldman but am considering it.

      The test looked like any other medical test, but all about qi and the flow of energy and cold slow pulses and things like that. Very interesting!

  7. Nicole says:

    I picked this book up at BEA and I didn’t think it was one that I would be interested too much in reading. I haven’t read Chabon before and though his fiction seems rather daunting, you have swayed me for this book with your review.

  8. Jeanne says:

    I had a bit of the same reaction to this one, initially, but plunged in because I liked Bad Mother so much and wanted to know more about MC the person. And yes, the one about what he was like as a self-impressed student is priceless!

    • Jenny says:

      I’m glad to hear your recommendation of Bad Mother. This book made me want to try Waldman, but I wasn’t sure where to start. And I agree that his humility in “Cosmodemonic” was extremely appealing.

  9. Sasha says:

    I have an unfortunate habit of acquiring nonfiction books by authors whose fiction [their “main” genre?] I haven’t read. Yeah, I have this on my shelves. You think it’d be okay if I read it on its own, or should I get the feel of Chabon’s fiction first?

    Because you’ve made this sound really good. And urgent!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, thank you! No, this definitely stands on its own. While I would certainly recommend his fiction (and he makes references to it in these essays) you don’t have to have read it to appreciate this book. But I hope it gets you hooked!

  10. Jenny says:

    I’m going to get this at the library when I go back there again–and Maps and Legends as well, and the nonfiction book his wife wrote. Maybe they will convince me to try Chabon’s fiction again. Everyone loves him! I want to love him!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Other Jenny, maybe he’s not for everyone! I do love his work, but not all of it equally. You don’t have to love him. But do try Maps and Legends.

  11. S. Krishna says:

    I’m ashamed to say that this was my first Chabon, but I loved it. I’m really looking forward to reading his other works.

  12. Pingback: Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon « Jenny's Books

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  14. Pingback: Review: Manhood for Amateurs « The Literary Omnivore

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