Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Before writing about people writing about parenting, can I say, happy anniversary to my own lovely parents? Happy anniversary, Mumsy & Daddy! Y’all are the best ever!

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who are married and writers, both wrote books of essays about parenting and family. I checked them out of the library together. Waldman’s book, Bad Mother, had eighteen chapters and an introduction, and Chabon’s, Manhood for Amateurs, had thirty-nine chapters. So I would basically read a chapter of Bad Mother and then two chapters of Manhood for Amateurs until I had finished them both. This was very pleasing except that sometimes I would forget whose book I was reading and be like, Good heavens, Ayelet Waldman slept with a thirty-five-year-old woman when she was fifteen?

Can I recommend that you all read both of these books in the same manner that I did? I got such a crush on Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, even though I didn’t like the one Michael Chabon book I read before this one. It was touching to read their writing about each other and their kids, because it’s plain that they adore the kids and admire each other tremendously. And I am a sucker for couples who admire each other. Like the Brownings. Except the Brownings are still my favorite literary couple. Of course. A time will never come when this is not the case.

When I cried: Waldman’s essays “Rocketship” about having an abortion, and “The Audacity of Hope” about that guy who does that stupid dance all over the world and how parents try to portray the world as kind to their children. (Y’all, I know it’s dorky, but that video makes me tear up.) And also Chabon’s “The Binding of Isaac” about the Obama girls on election night, and “The Hand on My Shoulder” about his ex-father-in-law, and “The Story of Our Story” about telling stories to his brother.

One thing I loved about both books is the awareness of each of the writers of the mythologizing function of family. Chabon writes about this particularly in his essay “The Amateur Family.” It’s about Doctor Who. I’d really rather quote the part where Chabon says something about “the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor”, but instead of doing that, I’ll quote this:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.

As a girl who can easily spend hours arguing with her sisters about the proportional amounts of blame to be assigned each sister the time Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron, or discussing how Doctory Matt Smith is compared to David Tennant, I can vouch for the similarity of the two arguments. We are all very fond of Matt Smith. We just like David Tennant, in varying degrees, better. And it wasn’t at all my fault that Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron. If Anna hadn’t broken one of her porcelain horses on a previous occasion, she would not have thought I was serious when I was threatening to break the other one and taken preemptive action. Not my fault at all.

Waldman says this, which I also know is true because I swear I have had nearly this exact experience.

And I think, “A person does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.

I wrote down so many quotations from these books! Ayelet Waldman on division of labor:

But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way….One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent.

Michael Chabon on escaping from life:

When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it. When that window can’t be found, or will no longer serve, or when it inevitably turns out to be only paint on the unchanging, impenetrable backdrop of our heads, small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer form of egress.

Maybe I would like Michael Chabon’s books after all. I mean I know all about his family now, and how to pronounce his last name, and the covers of his books are pretty. But I am still gun-shy from reading Kavalier and Clay on the plane a few years ago and finding it disappointing, so I think I’m just going to read Maps and Legends for now.

Reviews of Bad Mother:

Necromancy Never Pays
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
The Book Lady’s Blog (and guest review)
Devourer of Books
In Search of Giants

And reviews of Manhood for Amateurs:

Shelf Love
Stella Matutina
Amy Reads
Necromancy Never Pays
Fizzy Thoughts
The Bluestocking Society
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On with The Written World
The Captive Reader
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Dads
Killin’ Time Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

34 thoughts on “Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

    • So did I. With Waldman’s book, I had more reservations as far as, would I want to be friends with her?, but I really loved her writing and appreciated her honesty.

  1. Hey thank you for the link to my review. I have to admit I am intrigued with Bad Mother and feel like I would enjoy it more than Manhood for Amateurs. I love the way you read it! Great review of both books.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I think if you enjoyed Manhood for Amateurs (apart from the organizational issue), you’d like Bad Mother as well. It’s not exactly organized either, but then, she doesn’t claim that it is. And her writing’s lovely.

  2. Thank you for your good wishes, darling. Since our modest plan today is to go eat Counter Culture yogurt while gazing sappily at each other this evening, I am hoping the universe will ignore us for once instead of inflicting hurricanes, fire, flood and plague on us.

    I’m not sure what your memories of the tire iron incident are, but my recollection is many stern looks for you, but a major punishment and lecture for Social Sister. I mean, a tire iron? We had to discourage that. No way could we afford brain trauma rehab.

    I love this dual review, and I really want to read these two books now. Waldeman and Chabon sound like wonderful parents – and excellent writers, too. The quotes you chose are most enticing.

    • Um, no? I definitely got punished too. You put me on a star chart. My punishment was only very slightly less harsh than Social Sister’s. I remember because Anna and I complained about it at length to each other and I have never stopped stewing over it. :p

  3. I like Tennant better too. I think it would be interesting to read these two books like you did, as I have recently been delving into the “Bad Mother” controversy and think it would be helpful to see things from both Chabon’s and Waldman’s perspectives. Great review!

    • My favorite thing about reading the two books together was that they covered a lot of the same ground, but in different ways. Both writers talked about seeing their kids get older, both of them talked about their own early sexual experiences, both talked about how they met. It was cool!

  4. I love and adore Chabon- try out The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, if you want to read him some more. It’s not as sweeping as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and the alternate history is wonderful.

    I literally have a library copy of Manhood for Amateurs half a foot to the right of the laptop I’m typing this comment on- but I need to finish The Three Musketeers first.

    • Okay, I will go forth and do so. I like alternate history!

      Aw, yay for The Three Musketeers! I love it best of all the Dumas I’ve read. It is swashbuckling and delightful.

    • I know, the titles are good! The only thing is, if I ever wanted to get either of them as a present for someone else, I’d be afraid they’d think I was casting aspersions. :p

  5. Hee, you and I think kind of alike. I read Manhood for Amateurs (which I reviewed: at a chess tournament the year after I’d read Bad Mother at one–there was a pleasing echo in that, I thought!

    Maps and Legends is really good. I have to say that I’m not a general fan of Chabon’s fiction, but the one I like, I really, really like, and that’s his YA book Summerland. Also I like Wonder Boys–and the movie.

    • Oo, sorry I missed your link! I have added it now.

      My damn library claimed it had Maps and Legends, but when I went hunting for it, it was not on the shelves. 😦 So I’m going to have to try some of his fiction instead. I’m nervous about trying Wonder Boys because I HATED the film when I saw it. That was a good seven years ago, though, so maybe I’d like it better now.

  6. You’ve convinced me that I really need to read Bad Mother! I definitely developed a crush on Michael Chabon while reading Manhood for Amateurs, and I too loved how much his love for his kids and his wife spilled out from the pages. I sort of want to BE them, lol.

    • I will pass your good wishes on to them! They did have a happy anniversary, if a bit boring.

      It is not too late to read the books in rotation. Just give it some time until you have forgotten everything about MfA, and then try again. 🙂

  7. I think the way you read the two books is awesome! Unfortunately, I cannot truly replicate the experience as I have already read Bad Mother (thanks for the link, btw!). But I sort of have planned to read Manhood for Amateurs this year. I love that he references the Where the Hell is Matt video and Doctor Who! I love both of those things so much. 🙂 I am actually a big fan of Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and the season with him is my favorite (I’m in the middle of Season 4 now). I think Tennant’s adorable though, if a bit ‘shouty’.

    • I do love a good geeky reference myself. 🙂 Tennant’s my Doctor, but I got fond of Eccleston as well. For me, ultimately, I enjoyed Tennant more because he was having such fun with the part. It’s the same thing I like about Matt Smith.

  8. I didn’t realize these two were married! Very interesting. I really loved MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS (thanks for the link love by the way). Now I’ll have to check out BAD MOTHER to compare.

    And definitely check out MAPS AND LEGENDS. It’s very similar to MANHOOD, but about books and reading!

    • I want to read Maps and Legends a lot! I am reading a book about books (one of Michael Dirda’s), and I would like to read some more. But my library can’t find its copy. 😡

      • I love Michael Dirda! BOOK BY BOOK was one of my favorite reads of last year. And I have CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE awaiting me. I can’t wait for your review of the one you’re reading.

    • I hope they listen to you! My library has historically not purchased any books I asked them to purchase, but I got discouraged and stopped asking in high school. Maybe they’d be more inclined to listen to me now that I’m grown up.

  9. Pingback: An Apology, Some Rambling, and a Few Very Mini Reviews « The Alcove

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