This Sunday, families in the United States will celebrate fatherhood—a role that, like motherhood, carries the weight of personal and cultural legacies both poignant and fraught. In Laila Lalami’s novel The Other Americans, a young woman wrestles with complex feelings of grief, fear, and resentment after her father, a Moroccan immigrant, is killed in a hit-and-run. A short story by Saul Bellow examines a son’s relationship with a father who both trained and betrayed him.
The writer David Giffels’s father didn’t often speak about emotional topics—but near the end of his life, an unlikely project gave Giffels the chance to get to know him better. In editing a collection of essays about fatherhood, Brian Gresko found a wide range of experiences that challenged the preconceptions he once had about parenting and art. And the sociologist Scott Melzer’s research on traditional ideals of masculinity introduced him to a group of dads whose choices are expanding what those ideals can mean.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
My last project with my dad was building my own coffin
“All my life, that workshop was the place I understood my father best, a room seasoned with the vinegary smell of sawdust and sweet machine oil and the mystery of the man. My proposal to build a casket was mainly an excuse to be in his dust, to learn from him, to spend time together.”
📚 Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, by David Giffels
📚 The Wine Lover’s Daughter, by Anne Fadiman
📚 The Great Bridge, by David McCullough
What makes men fathers
“The experience of having a kid opens you up emotionally in a way that [causes] you to see the world totally differently … Those feelings can really feed your creative work, and that’s something I never anticipated.”
📚 When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood, edited by Brian Gresko
The fathers reshaping American masculinity
“[Melzer] characterizes the stay-at-home dads, and in particular those who stay home voluntarily, as men who’ve recalibrated their personal definition of what manhood really means.”
📚 Manhood Impossible, by Scott Melzer
How to belong in America
“As Nora and the other characters unravel the real story of [Nora’s father] Driss’s killing, Lalami weighs heavy questions: Will America ever live up to the dream it sells would-be immigrants around the world? Is it possible to belong in a country that so readily kills people like you? Who is sufficiently American?”
📚The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami
Can writing be both true and beautiful?
“If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.”
📚 “A Silver Dish,” by Saul Bellow
📚 The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
📚 A Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin
This week’s question comes from Allison, who’s looking for books about nonbinary characters. “A growing number of people I know use pronouns other than she/her and he/him, and I’d like to practice/get more comfortable using other pronouns so it hopefully starts feeling more natural,” she writes. “Books feel like a good place to start since I spend so much time reading!”
First of all, I love this idea. The linguist John McWhorter wrote an essay last fall about how he, too, is trying to get used to using the singular, gender-neutral they, calling it “the most challenging change in language I have dealt with in my lifetime” because of how reflexively pronouns are used in casual speech. This makes books, as Allison points out, a great place to start internalizing the grammar of gender-neutral pronouns. On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden, is a graphic novel set on a spaceship run by women and one nonbinary person, whose preferred pronouns are central to an important moment for the crew. The recent memoir Sissy, by Jacob Tobia, is “a coming-of-gender story” about what it feels like to grow up not conforming to male/female binaries. And in their novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrea Lawlor interrogates the idea of gender more broadly through a character who can shift between male and female bodies at will. Autostraddle has a list of more fiction books featuring nonbinary characters that you can check out here.
Write to the Books Briefing team at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.