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Literary Papas: A Review of When I First Held You

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When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood
Edited by Brian Gresko
Berkley Trade, 2014

I’ll be the first to admit, as a dad myself, I approach all reading and watching on the subject of fatherhood with some trepidation. We occupy a moment in the American zeitgeist when the examination of dads sets a pretty low conversational bar. From television and film depictions of fathers, to popular "Dads-for-Dummies"-type parenting manuals, we see fathers as little other than reluctant and inept, if well-meaning, buffoons. Juxtaposed with the way in which, story after story, we laud the most mediocre attempts at successful fathering while belittling even the most herculean efforts of mothers, and we aren’t really left with much wiggle room for a serious discussion on the subject. So, cautiously, I approached When I First Held You, published by Berkley Publications and edited by Brian Gresko, wherein nearly two dozen literary dads wax poetic on the trials, tribulations, and gratifications of being a dad.

Anthony Doerr's essay on impermanence in parenting, Stephen O’Connor’s sweetly gushing love letter to wanting to be and remain a dad, and Benjamin Percy’s meditation on life and death were among the high points. But I’d recommend starting with Dennis Lehane’s essay about shedding his delusions regarding adulthood and fatherhood, or Lev Grossman’s lamentation on his brief and painful inability to write in the wake of becoming a dad – two standouts for this particular reader. Other contributors include André Aciman, Rick Moody, Marco Roth, Justin Cronin, David Bezmogis, and Karl Taro Greenfeld, each with their own peculiar and introspective glimpse into fatherhood’s sometimes humorous, sometimes despairing vicissitudes.

From the decision to bring kids into the world (intended or not), to muddling their way through pregnancy and childbirth, to coping with toddlers and surviving teenagers, this collection runs the gamut of how being a father challenged each writer’s life and work and drove him a little bit nuts. While the anthology yields little in the way of original material and the individual selections are brief and can, at times, run a little heavy on platitudes, there are some widely divergent gems that make When I First Held You worth a look for any reader interested in pondering the subject, and though Father’s Day is in this year’s rear-view mirror, the collection would still make a great gift for both new and veteran dads alike.


M. Bartley Seigel is the author of the poetry collection This Is What They Say and is founding editor of the critically acclaimed literary magazine and small press [PANK]. He is assistant professor of creative writing and diverse literatures at Michigan Tech, though he’ll be spending the next year teaching American literature at Tartu University in Estonia.


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