Chabon's book is basically a collection of essays on being a man. The subtitle is "The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son." The theme is a perfect counterpoint to his wife's book (Ayelet Waldman's "Bad Mother"), but while Waldman's book stayed on track, Chabon's book takes delightful side-trips into the lands of comic books, baseball and listening to the radio.
As much as I didn't want to compare their writing (which strikes me as horribly unfair), I got a lot of food for thought from Waldman's book but I fell in love with Chabon's book. His writing pleased me immensely. The way he puts words together thrilled me and amused me and touched me. So much so that I think I'll just spend the rest of this review cramming as many little excerpts in as I can. Why listen to me go on and on about how much I loved this book when you can experience it for yourself?
Consider his essay the "Splendors of Crap." Have you ever heard a more accurate description of modern children's movies than this:
At least once a month I take my kids to see a new "family movie"—the latest computer-generated piece of animated crap. Please don't oblige me to revisit the last one even long enough to name the film, let alone describe it. Anyway, you know the one I mean: set in a zoo, or in a forest, or on farm, or under the sea, or in "Africa," or in an effortlessly hilarious StorybookLandTM where magic, wonder and make-believe are ironized and mocked except at the moments when they are tenderly invoked to move units. I believe but am not prepared to swear that the lead in this weekend's version may have been a neurotic lion, or a neurotic bear, or a neurotic rat, or a neurotic chicken. Chances are good that the thing featured penguins; for a while, the movies have all been featuring penguins. Naturally, there were the legally required 5.5 incidences of humor-stimulating flatulence per hour of running time. A raft of bright pop-punk tunes on the soundtrack, alternating with familiar numbers culled with art and cruelty from the storehouse of parental nostalgia.
Chabon has a gift for writing about the little moments of life and making them instantly familiar and relatable but then layering on his own unique style and viewpoint in a way that makes these essays as delicious and satisfying to read as dark chocolate or a warm roll with butter (or substitute your guilty delight here). As my Little One embarks on his school career, I've begun to realize that the sheer amount of papers he'll generate in the coming years could account for an entire forest of trees dying. So I thoroughly enjoyed "The Memory Hole," in which Chabon writes about dealing with the creative works of four children. Let's read a little of it, shall we?
Almost every school day, at least one of my four children comes home with art: a drawing, a painting, a piece of handicraft, a construction-paper assemblage, an enigmatic apparatus made from pipe cleaners, sparkles and clay. And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash. My wife and I have to remember to shove the things down deep, lest one of the kids stumble across the ruin of his or her laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca wedged in with the junk mail and the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt. But there is so much of the stuff; we don't know what else to do with it. We don't toss all of it. We keep the good stuff—or what strikes us, in the Zen of the instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail, as good. As worthier somehow; more vivid, more elaborate, more accurate, more sweated over.
In typing that last excerpt, I realized that what makes Chabon's writing so good is how specific he is. He doesn't just say "We throw it in the trash and make sure it is buried deep." He describes the art ("laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca"—who among us has NOT made one of these or had one given to us?) and the trash ("the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt"). It is this specificity and detail that delights me and creates such memorable and relatable writing.
Yet I think Chabon's true genius is taking a specific event like dealing with the flood of artwork from your children and turning it into a deeper, more philosophical musing. Consider the end of the essay excerpted above:
The truth is that in every way, I am squandering the treasure of my life. It's not that I don't take enough pictures, though I don't, or that I don't keep a diary, though iCal and my monthly Visa bill are the closest I come to a thoughtful prose record of events. Every day is like a kid's drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.
I wish I could keep going; I must have marked at least 30 other passages that I thought were particularly memorable or amazing or just spoke to me. Like his essay "Radio Silence," which talks about how listening to the radio can suddenly make you a time traveler—winging you back to the first moment you heard that song.
I had every intention of giving this book away for a giveaway when I was done with it, but I can't. This is a keeper. This is a book I want to keep close by: to dip into when I need to be reminded what good writing is, or when I face the inevitable moment when my son asks me about my past and I need to walk the same tightrope Chabon does when his kids ask him whether he's ever tried drugs1, or when I just want to relax and revel in what a gifted writer can do with English language.