Father’s Day arrives on June 19 with as many different stories as there are fathers.
If a father figure in your life loves books, or you want to learn more about the rhythms of parenthood, these five relatively recent titles will deepen and broaden the look. They range from more conventional stories and observations to paternal lamentations, family mysteries and stories of men providing surrogate support.
In their pages, the truth about the spirit of fatherhood resounds, even if intimate circumstances vary.
“Pops” by Michaël Chabon (2018)
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) offers a series – subtitled “Fatherhood in Pieces” – of brief but developed essays from within his life as a parent.
At the center of the work is a piece about Chabon coming to respect and understand his son as a whole person while bearing witness to his child’s budding passion for fashion. Speaking to NPR’s Terry Gross, Chabon answered a question about seeing his son find “his people” outside of family.
“That’s your whole goal as a parent, ultimately – is to create a fully formed human being who can go out and stand on their own two feet. And there’s a certain resemblance between what a parent feels for an adult or almost adult child and the unrequited love,” he said. “It’s not without return in the sense that your child doesn’t love you back. But it’s – ultimately, it seems to be going in that direction. And that’s the point.”
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“Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Humble giant of a novel, Robinson’s Pulitzer winner passes on the spiritual wisdom and gentle torment of the Reverend John Ames to his dying son. Ames’ perspective arrives with clear wonder, expressing timeless truths as if for the first time and achieving a kind of intensely intimate observation.
“Nearly every page of this novel is laden with stark beauty and deep poetry,” Ted Gioia aptly wrote for The New Canon.
There is such specificity in the words of Ames – he writes of his family, for his son, while wondering what the years that will survive him will bring him. And yet readers feel gently, tenderly cared for by the aging minister; every attentive reader can glean wisdom at the pastor’s — and Robinson’s — feet to follow and follow when life gets dark or confusing.
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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders (2017)
The depth of grief a good father might feel—and the distances he would travel to spare his child’s suffering—are revealed on every page of Saunders’ formally inventive and emotionally devastating novel. The book follows a soul-stricken Abraham Lincoln in a liminal space between death and rebirth following the death of his young son Willie.
The novel, which won Saunders the Man Booker Prize, captures conversations and observations from within the bardo, showing the gravity of Lincoln’s sadness while retracing moments of levity and the particularity of death.
Saunders’ inspiration came when he learned that Lincoln had entered his son’s crypt several times, he wrote in a 2017 article for the Guardian.
“An image came to mind spontaneously – a fusion of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà,” Saunders wrote. “I carried that image for the next 20 years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, I noticed I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own tombstone read “Afraid to embark on a creepy art project he desperately wanted to try, decided to go for it, exploratory, non-committal.”
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“The Light of Distant Stars” by Shawn Smucker (2019)
Discovering his father’s body in the funeral home where they both work sends Cohen Marah on a journey where he must sift through and weigh memory and reality, grief and responsibility, the past and all hope for tomorrow.
One of our most empathetic and witty novelists, Smucker draws readers into the concerns of his characters, even if they could never fully inhabit the novel’s plot and circumstances. As its title suggests, the book is filled with wonder and distance, a light that manages to shine even against the backdrop of the darkest night.
Naming “Light” the best fiction book of 2020, Christianity Today quoted the words of novelist Nicole Baart:
“When past and present collide and Cohen is forced to reconcile his current reality with a story that feels more terrible fantasy than reality, grace becomes a sacred hope that holds the very power of redemption.”
“Don’t jump on me” by Willy Vlautin (2018)
Vlautin, first known to the public as a musician, excels in finding the beautiful nooks and the loneliest nooks of bad luck stories. His 2018 novel is not the story of a biological father and son, but of an elderly rancher who does his best by Horace, an indentured laborer and a boxing prospect.
To know Vlautin’s work is to know that life will land more than its fair share of punches on Horace’s chin. But the book never falls into sheer desperation, carried by the author’s sad-eyed soul – and the simple graces of Horace’s connection to Mr. Reese.
“It’s only you and the people who love you who really care what happens to you,” Vlautin told the Los Angeles Review of Books, discussing Horace’s athletic ambitions.
“And the people who love you just want you to be safe, they don’t care about your ambition. Mr. Reese knows nothing about boxing except that it could ruin Horace’s life. He loves the kid , no matter what it’s only Horace who believes there needs to be more.
Aarik Danielsen is the Features and Culture Editor for Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.