The year 2018 has already been distinguished by a bonanza of books about motherhood: smart books, whimsical books, anxious books, frightening books, eloquent books — bringing both heat and light to that most fundamental subject. In this, as in so many things, men seem to be lagging. There is no parallel harvest of thoughtful assessments of fatherhood in evidence, and the three books at hand are a tentative start, at best. Let’s step it up, dads.
Michael Chabon’s Pops (Harper, $19.99) could provoke wildly mixed reactions. The novelist’s equanimity is so unassailable, and his parenting style so judicious and measured, that lesser men may feel inadequate, hopelessly stuck in the swampy, irrational chafe and fray of day-to-day family life. If just getting your kids out the door with most of their clothes on and some elements of basic hygiene accomplished feels like a victory, you will find his account of his son’s precocious engagement with the stratospheric rituals of Parisian fashion houses a bit fulsome. Giving this book to less-than-perfect fathers — that is, to any of them — could be an act of passive-aggressive malice. To be sure, though, Chabon writes with grace and insight about his relationship with his father, which is “shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure, strewn with the bones of old promises and lies.” The best part of “Pops” — which is admittedly often dazzling — is the introduction, in which Chabon relates, with consummate skill, a long-ago conversation with an anonymous older writer who warned the impressionable young writer, “You can write great books, or you can have kids.” Chabon’s rejection of this sinister bit of advice is genuinely wise, concluding that only “a scant few” novels and short stories will survive anyhow. “If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that.”
“It was hip-hop that saved my life,” writes musician-turned-journalist Juan Vidal, “and it was fatherhood that set it on fire.” Rap Dad (Atria, $25; forthcoming in September) is an account of a personal journey out of Miami’s impoverished barrio and a heartfelt examination of the damage that wayward fathers can leave in their wake. For many fatherless youths, Vidal writes, “their being abandoned had helped fuel their rage and depression,” in his case with myriad near-disastrous results. Like Chabon, Vidal worried at one point “that being a father . . . would require that I give up my quest to become a major artist.” Instead of this deadly compromise, though, he ended up bonding with his peers and celebrating a new generation “of men who grew up fatherless but were now shifting the conversation” away from outdated concepts of masculinity. “Now I saw rap dads everywhere with tykes in tow,” he notes approvingly, “little ones smoothed out in Air Jordans . . . kids that were hip-hop down to the bone gristle.” For Vidal, fatherhood is a blessing, and hip-hop a lifestyle not limited to the hard streets of his youth.
Yanis Varoufakis’s Talking to My Daughter About the Economy (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22) is a stealthy little book. Nominally framed as a letter to his daughter, this tome by the former Greek minister of finance is actually a folksy, if cleverly slanted, primer on economics that would perhaps more accurately be titled “Why It’s Not Daddy’s Fault That Unemployment Is at 40 Percent.” It takes a special kind of guy to write a defense of failed policy under cover of a letter to a 14-year-old girl. The Trojan horse approach is unfortunate because underneath its narrative gimmick lies a cogent outline of leftist economic theory that could have served as a useful guide for jargon-allergic progressives. Instead, the narrative is peppered with chummy interjections to the daughter like “I know what you are thinking: There must be a catch” and “I bet you’ve already guessed the answer.” These pseudo-Socratic asides serve as vivid, if unintentional, illustrations of the considerable overlap of “right-on Marxist dude” and “condescending twit.” Maybe the daughter should write her own book. I’d read that.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.