Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer reading: J.J. Lee measures father, son, and suit

Sixty pages in, I'm loving J.J. Lee's The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. Precise, lyrical writing that moves between sections on cultural history (of men's wear generally, suits in particular), personal and familial history (with the added interest of combining the story of first-generation immigrants--Lee's parents-- to the age-old drama of fathers and sons), as well as mesmerizing chapters looking closely at the tailor's trade. Superb process writing, elucidating  the details of handiwork such that it becomes sensuous despite the potential tedium of cutting and stitching.

I'm going to admit that, with our first serious sunshine of the summer, I'd rather take the book outside right now than write much about it here, but I can't resist sharing these lines, written by Lee as an explanation for his willingness to take on an apprenticeship in tailoring at a much later age than this would normally be undertaken:
I hope [the apprenticeship works out] as I've been at loose ends. My dreams for a career as a hard-hitting journalist are dead in the water. I've developed a reputation for being light. I'm the guy who writes about fashion and design.  The chances I will cover wars, politics, crime, and anonymous government leaks are nil. There are no Pulitzer Prizes or Peabodys awarded for exposés on the spring/summer collections. Which I accept.
But it's when he goes on to declare his "nevertheless" committment to the significance of fashion that he really captures me:
I still believe fashion matters. It matters to people not because they care what someone in Paris or New York has to say about what they should wear next season, nor because they think what models and Hollywood starlets wear is vital to their happiness.
And here it comes. . . .
Fashion matters because every day people get up in the morning and, with the palette of clothes they find in their closets and dressers, they attempt to create a visual poem about a part of themselves they wish to share with the world. That's what fashion has always meant to me. (53)

I wrote and transcribed that yesterday afternoon. Since then, I've moved through the account of Lee's father's alcoholism and its effect on his parents' marriage as well as on his childhood, the usual challenges of adolescence being exacerbated by his father's parallel journey. But the disillusion and disappointment and ensuing distance has a contrapuntal answer in Lee's frame story, the alterations he's daring to make, with his limited tailor's apprentice skills, to a suit his father left him. Such an effective structure, such honest, open, yet careful writing, the emotional exposure and then the stepping back to the more objective assessments of what the suit needs -- the reader feels the relief of those breathing spaces, completely engaging in their own right.

But the sun calls again, and the book, so I'm going out to look for the perfect chair in the right puddle of shade. . .
UPDATED:  Almost a week (and another whole book read) later, and I do feel I should say more about the darker aspects of the memoir, those that might defy some readers' concept of "summer reading." Lee's description of his family's dysfunction during his childhood and adolescence is painful, gruelling in places, particularly because the dissolution progresses out of a once-happy unit. Before we see the depths his father's alcoholism drags them to, we first see him as a young (and beautiful and hopeful, confident and competent) man in love. His courtship of Lee's mother reads like a romance novel, and there's equally powerful optimism in the imagery of the young family -- while his father works long and late hours from the earliest days of the marriage, the children's anticipation of his homecoming each evening, his wife's accommodation of the tough restaurant schedule, provide scenes of family solidarity, a sense of adventure that extends to JJ's forays into his father's world as he accompanied him on various errands in the early years.

Without wanting to spoil other readers' experience of watching this narrative unfold, I will just say that the distance that emerges from this early closeness is established through compelling descriptions marked by honesty, clarity, and compassion. Lee guides us through his memories from an adult position of understanding for, and of, his young self AND his father. Now with two young sons himself, he meditates movingly on fatherhood, through the vehicle of the tailored suit -- and because his consideration of tailoring is so well-observed, so invested for the very material sake of the tailoring and one specific suit, the vehicle never seems precious or laboured. Rather, this is a very satisfying memoir that I plan to give copies of as gifts. Meanwhile, I'd recommend it highly as summer reading, or for reading at any other time of the year. As usual, should you have read it already, I'd love to hear what you think. And if you end up reading it on my recommendation, I'd like to hear whether you agree or not.

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