Fatherhood changes everything for the man who can grow with the ride. A few of the books below are about such men; others are about kids and dads facing life’s curve balls.
“Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” by Barack Obama. It’s been nice to have former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama very much in the current conversation about systemic racism and inequity in America. Obama’s 1995 memoir concerns his young life in Honolulu; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Chicago, up until his entrance to Harvard Law School in 1988. The book captures what the author, while growing up, wistfully imagined his absent Kenyan father, Barack Obama Sr., to be, based on stories told by his mother and grandparents. Obama describes meeting his father, an economist, for a brief time in 1971. Years later (after the elder man died), the future president visited Kenya to better understand that half of his identity.
“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev’s 1862 classic features two fathers who delight in their college-age sons, but struggle with the philosophical nihilism that consumes each young man. One of the latter, Arkady, raised by a widower on his country estate, is captivated (at least for a time) by the cynicism of his friend Bazarov. During days and weeks spent at one another’s family homes — and as guests of a beautiful, wealthy widow, Anna — both Arkady and Bazarov are unexpectedly stirred from their radical dismissiveness of emotions by love for women, and come into conflict with one another over the value of traditional mores.
“Mary Shelley” by Miranda Seymour; “Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives” by Daisy Hay. The story of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley is, in many ways, the story of a brilliant but haunted woman who lost her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, from complications of Mary’s birth. Then — years later — she lost her father, Charles Godwin, as well when he ostracized her for her live-in relationship with the poet Percy Shelley (while Godwin simultaneously put pressure on Shelley to give him money). Yet Godwin, like Wollstonecraft, had made his name much earlier as a freethinking radical in English politics and culture wars. His original ethos deeply influenced both Mary and Percy Shelley, who tried to live by those principles long after a more conservative Godwin abandoned them. Both of these books are compelling reads into that stark divide in a father’s legacy.
“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” by Michael Chabon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” was advised in the early years of his career to refrain from having children, lest he compromise his commitment to writing good books. Well, quite a few books and four children later, Chabon collected several essays for this delightful volume about lessons learned both from guiding one’s kids while also following their leads to see what makes them tick. This is not a parenting how-to, but rather a humble immersion into bottomless love.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury; “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. Searching for a dad-themed classic to read aloud to your pre-teen/early-teen kids? Don’t overlook these speculative fiction touchstones. Bradbury’s supernatural adventure pits its demonic villain, the soul-sucking Mr. Dark and his nefarious carnival, against the decency and wisdom of a young protagonist’s aging father. Good and evil also tangle in L’Engle’s perennial favorite, the tale of children crossing time, space and multiverses in search of the father whose spirit kept them going long after he mysteriously disappeared.
“Swing Low: A Life” by Miriam Toews. Canadian writer Toews (“All My Puny Sorrows”) engaged a remarkable strategy with this memoir about her bipolar father, Mel Toews, who died by suicide in 1998. Miriam narrates Mel’s story from his first-person perspective, beginning with his commitment to a Winnipeg psychiatric facility, an event that prompts him to scrutinize his life. Miriam (through Mel’s voice) recalls his despondent youth; how he defied advice to eschew marriage, fatherhood and career (he became a beloved teacher) because of mental illness; and how his relative stability eroded upon retiring from his work. The book is a talented daughter’s moving experiment in understanding a parent’s pain.