“Manhood for Amateurs” & “Ormeshadow”

A LitStack Rec

by Lauren Alwan & Sharon Browning

This week’s LitStack Rec says be sure and read this great memoir about a father, Manhood for Amateurs, and to savor the coming of age story, Ormeshadow.

Manhood for Amateurs and Ormeshadow

You can find and buy the books we recommend at our bookshop list of LitStack Recs.

Manhood for Amateurs

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, essays by Michael Chabon

There are some great memoirs about fathers. Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, Will Boast’s Epilogue come to mind, and Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father—narratives in which fathers run the spectrum, from brave to flawed and back again.

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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 Manhood for Amateurs is not a memoir exactly, but a series of essays grouped thematically around personal and cultural ideas and behaviors connected to fatherhood, as well as a nostalgia for sixties childhood and seventies youth, and serves as an account of the flaws and failures that influence how he fathers his children. There are essays here too, on boyhood, and boyfriend-hood, which 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. “The handy thing about being a father is that the historical standard is so pitifully low.” The 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.

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One of my favorite essays, “The Wilderness of Childhood,” is unabashedly nostalgic, and serves a kind of think piece on the detriment of too closely watching our children, denying the freedom children have always 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.

Manhood for Amateurs

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 an essay 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.

As these facets of fatherhood accumulate, we understand Chabon is not a perfect father, but as the essays help us understand, that is a false expectation—one that needs to evolve and change.

—Lauren Alwan

Other Titles by Michael Chabon

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Ormeshadow, Priya Sharma

When Gideon is ten years old, he and his parents are forced to leave their home in Bath to take up residence at the Belman family farmstead near the rural town of Ormeshadow. Sheep farming is quite different from learning Latin, and the tension between Gideon’s parents and his enigmatic Uncle Thomas keeps Gideon constantly unbalanced.

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But Gideon’s father grew up in Orme, and regales the boy with childhood stories and local folklore. Orme, Gideon’s father tells him, is the old English word for dragon, and according to legend, Ormeshadow was built on the back of a dragon who had been sleeping for so long that grass grew over her, for so long that people forgot she was there. The village was built in her shadow, and still she sleeps on.

Author Interview: Priya Sharma On her Fabulous Beasts, Ormeshadow, and  writing. | More2Read
Priya Sharma

Yet all too human secrets abound at the Belman farmstead, and when they boil over, Gideon’s already tenuous world is thrown into turmoil. When those he loves irrevocably fail him, the only thing he has to turn to is the myth of a slumbering beast whose rumored permanence feels like the only thing in his life that is real.

This coming of age story, written by Priya Sharma (known mainly for her short stories, including 2018’s All the Fabulous Beasts, which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Single Author Collection, and was nominated for both a Locus Award and the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection) is a beautiful and haunting work, masterfully blending both stark reality and wishful fantasy. Reading it, I was indelibly transported into a world completely unlike my own, and yet wholly authentic.

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In Gideon, Sharma is able to give us a voice that is tender, yet has the resilience of youth. He is constantly stymied, and yet is still able to occasionally find beauty in his grim surroundings. He knows his father is troubled, yet still their relationship is precious and close; their time wandering the Orme, and the stories he hears from his father give his unsettled life purchase.

Sharma’s description of Orme, both the settled, mundane land and the lore buried beneath it, is unfeigned and tangible. The fantasy element of this novella is slight, but potent, wreathed in legend and innocence and made so much more powerful in its simplicity. It slumbers, and yet the story is built upon it, like the Orme herself.

I absolutely adored Ormeshadow, so much so that I have sought out Priya Sharma, and intend on delving into the rest of her work. I recommend a lot of books over the year, but this one stands above others in the beauty of its writing, and its simple but powerful telling.

—Sharon Browning

Other Titles by Priya Sharma

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Other LitStack Resources

Be sure and look at our other LitStack Recs for our recommendations on books you should read, as well as these reviews by Lauren Alwan, and these reviews by Sharon Browning.

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