Young Man, Muddled: Book summary and reviews of Young Man, Muddled by Robert Kanigel

Young Man, Muddled

A Memoir

by Robert Kanigel

Young Man, Muddled by Robert Kanigel X
Young Man, Muddled by Robert Kanigel
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Book Summary

In this, his first memoir, celebrated biographer and non-fiction book author Robert Kanigel tells of "muddling" his way into adulthood, love, and a new life. The 1950s formed him first; then the 1960s got their grip on him.

As Hemingway wrote, "It happened gradually, then suddenly." Robert Kanigel, a grade-skipping Jewish fellow from Brooklyn, went from engineering war weaponry in Baltimore to telling stories of geniuses, special places, and big ideas.

Kanigel broke from the predictable middle-class life ordained for him by chasing a living muse, Maura, to Paris, to Germany, and back to Baltimore. There, his confusion, his young man's muddle, played out over the next year and a half, ultimately leading him to the door of an underground newspaper.

What followed was a career of critically heralded nonfiction writing, and many books, including the recent Hearing Homer's Song, and The Man Who Knew Infinity, which became an international 2015-2016 IFC/Warner Brothers film of the same name starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

The subjects of Kanigel's books have included the natives of Ireland's Great Blasket Island, urban activist Jane Jacobs (nemesis of New York powerbroker Robert Moses), the unruly medical masters and apprentices at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health, sensual Nice on the French Riviera, Homeric scholar Milman Parry (in Hearing Homer's Song), mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, and industrial "efficiency expert" Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Today the author—a little older, worlds wiser, the muddle never entirely resolved—looks back. And he transcends.

Excerpt (PDF opens in a new window).

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Kanigel writes that "[I]t's more true than not that memoirs today turn their backs on the ordinary and the familiar" (p. 2). Do you believe this to be true? Why or why not? Is "memoir" a genre you read often, and if so, which memoirs have you enjoyed?
  2. The book covers the author's life through his early 20s, but he's recording his experiences decades later. How much do you trust his version of events? Why do you feel some people can clearly recall their early years while others can't? Which are you?
  3. The author quotes Petula Clark's song, "Downtown" when relating the thrill he felt when visiting downtown Baltimore, opining that "Downtown was where it was happening, baby" (p. 12). Have you ever felt this way about a city's core? Are...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Young Man, Muddled:

At what point do you "become" something? Is it the day you start, or when you look back later and realize that's what you are? How much of what we become is due to the people around us?
You don't become something merely by starting it. You become it when you realize it's a good fit and want to continue. Especially when it come to careers. I tried many things as a young woman. They didn't all stick and when I look ... - laurag

Could you relate to his feeling of loneliness in childhood? Do you think being an introvert or extrovert is a product of nature or nurture?
Nope. I grew up with four brothers and sisters, I had 34 cousins relatively close by, and a neighborhood where every house was bursting at the seams with kids. We didn't have a chance to be an introvert (although admittedly I used to hide ... - triciat50

Did Chapter 16, as an ending to this book, feel satisfying???
I knew ahead of time that this was going to be about a short period in his life, so I wasn't surprised at the ending. I think he had an excellent editor, because going through how that time frame affected the entire rest of his life would have ... - triciat50

How well do you think Kanigel understood Maura's depression at the time? Do you think he'd have reacted differently if he'd been older?
He did not understand it well at all. Even today, clinical depression (and many other mental health conditions) isn't well understood by the general public. There is still, despite all the efforts made to combat it, a stigma attached ... - juliaa

If you lived through the Vietnam era, what is your impression, looking back at the period? If you don't personally recollect the time, what impression have you formed of it? Was the era truly different?
I was in my early-mid teens during the end of the Vietnam era. I was old enough to see the chaos, confusion, and rebellions taking place across the country. Several of my parents friends lost their sons to war or suicide after returning home. These ... - poniesnpearls

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Media Reviews

"In his sensitive debut memoir, essayist, biographer, and nonfiction writer Kanigel (b. 1946) recounts his life in the 1960s, crucial years when the Vietnam War roiled the country and he confronted his unsettled future… Thoughtful, candid reminiscences from a veteran writer." ―Kirkus Reviews

"A primer on coming of age in a fissuring society, Kanigel's beautiful, probing, deeply moving memoir is one you won't put down." —Tristine Skyler, Executive Produce of IFC Films' The Man Who Knew Infinity

"In his absorbing memoir, the acclaimed journalist Robert Kanigel finally turns his keen eye on himself, taking the reader on his journey from shy youth in the conformist 1950s to full-blooded personhood in the liberating tumult of the 1960s and leaving us just as he starts what was to be a long and brilliant writing career. Tender, reflective, witty, rueful, always honest, and always good company, Kanigel reveals himself with eloquent simplicity and rare candor. A tour de force of self-examination, Young Man, Muddled opens a window onto the origin story of an extraordinary life." ―Ellen Pall, author of Must Read Well

"Kanigel is a great biographer. He has a marvelous gift for finding interesting characters and using them to reveal the world in which they lived, and which they usually helped to shape. In this book, he trains his sights on himself. Writing with revealing honesty and marvelous grace, he uses the story of his own life to illuminate an important moment in American life." ―Charles Duff, author of The North Atlantic Cities

"An exhilarating journey into the mystery of self. Kanigel's sifting through the confusions, hopes, and longings of his past invites all of us to do the same. We'll be better for it." —Arthur J. Magida, author of Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris

"Robert Kanigel writes as engagingly about himself as he does about others. While this memoir, engagingly depicting Kanigel's early struggles to find his path, is fascinating in and of itself, it's also a highly useful vehicle for self-recall-reflection on the part of the reader." —Robert O. Pierce, former director of the Peabody Institute, John Hopkins University

"An inviting depiction of a particular time and place, Young Man, Muddled maintains a tight focus on young Rob's first experiences living on his own, falling in and out of love, finding a path out of his initial career in ballistics engineering and into the writing life... Kanigel's memories—warmly written and fondly recollected as they are—do not shy away from points of wrongheadedness or deep shame, of honestly exploring his youthful fear of jumping into the unknown, of recognizing the myriad times, as he says at the beginning of our conversation, 'I f—ed up.' The result is a lived-in, highly relatable portrait of a young man trying to figure himself out against the vivid backdrop of Vietnam-era Baltimore." —Baltimore Fish Bowl

"Robert Kanigel is a gifted writer whose abilities have been recognized with prominent literary awards and accolades. He applies his unique perspective to a young man's coming-of-age story that will surely touch anyone who grew up during the Vietnam War era." —Marcy Miller, author of the acclaimed memoir Rebooting in Beverly Hills

This information about Young Man, Muddled was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review


Reflections on Youth.
I received this book in order to participate and in a BookBrowse discussion. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this coming-of-age memoir and was thrown off by the cover (which was later explained through reading the book) but found once I began reading that this was a rare opportunity for me to re-examine and re-experience a period in time that I too had lived through. I enjoyed the author’s reflections of his youth, it’s innocence; his gleeful indulgences upon achieving “freedom” and his sobering moment upon viewing Wild Strawberries wondering on the life he had chosen at this point in his youth. I got swept up on how he viewed and/or pursued those things that came his way and the choices that came along with all of them. But what made the book so meaningful to me was that the author put into perspective an important point in aging: we can’t turn back the clock so it’s best to reflect and appreciate your choices, regret the hurts you received or inflicted, but be grateful for all that has been given. A most enjoyable read.

David Christ

Author's Experiences
I'm also interested in the author's experiences with the underground newspaper and how they affected his career. Overall, it appears to be a book about personal growth, love, and pursuing one's passions.

william desmond

young man muddled
This a personal account: a life story, a memoir, a tale told through the eyes of one that rode into the world with his toes curled over the leading edge of the Babyboomer’s Generation. The story opens in Baltimore in 1966 some twenty years after his birth. We join him on his many travels and adventures throughout life, a life that granted him the fodder to peruse and accomplish a career as a renowned writer. There is love and lost love, education and ambition, happiness and loneliness, dreams and despair, religion and discovery, work and writing. But there is also the counter culture—hippies, protests, drugs, racial unrest, sex and the sexual revolution, the military draft and the Viet Nam War. His story is inimitable but it is also a story of his generation—so may tales to be had from this time—his—is just one of them.

Susan P

Muddled Young Man; Muddled Times
It's the 1960s and there's a lot of social turmoil and a lot of pressure to be so many things while being so young! This is a journal or diary kept by this man growing up in the 1960s.He goes to college and becomes an engineer; becomes engaged and breaks it off; accepts a job with the military complex but actively avoids the draft and the Vietnam War; goes to anti war protests marches, chases an independent young woman to France and back as they carry out their passionate affair. He quits he work as an engineer and begins to write for an underground newspaper. And, that's the story; he falls into the writing professional not because he had direction or certain dreams of writing but because he could write and did and because it didn't fit into the parental expectations he grew up with. Ho hum, the book, in my opinion, is a mediocre offering and a somewhat boring read as it tells the tale of many young men growing up in the 60s. Most of were "muddled" about our ambitions or lack thereof; some 'fell' into success and others faded into the sunset. I suspect it's not so different from young people growing up today. Sometimes one is just lucky!


Muddled, for sure
Rabert Kanigel's memoir is more a diary than a memoir about a few years in the late 1960's. His audience seems to be himself, remembering times past without much reflection; it covers jobs he took to avoid the draft for fighting in Viet Nam while working for companies involved in producing military equipment. The book follows his trying to make a relationship with his girlfriend Maura work and his trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life, occupationally.

It's a very self-centered book. Hey, I get that it's a memoir, but without reflection, the broader contexts of what was happening in the world and his own personal journey just seem to flatline.


Muddled, for sure
I want to say one further thing about this book. It was very poorly written. It was an "I did this and this and this etc." without any literate flourishes of language.

After finishing the book, whew, I open the new novel, Complicities, by Stacey D'Erasmo, and in the first paragraph, it was like water to a man dying for something well written.

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Author Information

Robert Kanigel Author Biography

Photo: Michael Lionstar

Robert Kanigel is the author of nine previous books, most recently Hearing Homer's Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry and, before that, Eyes on the Street, his biography of Jane Jacobs. He has received many awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, the Grady-Stack Award for science writing, and an NEH Public Scholar grant. His book The Man Who Knew Infinity was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; it has been translated into more than a dozen languages and was the basis for the film of the same name starring Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel. Kanigel and his wife, the poet S. B. Merrow, live in Baltimore.

Author Interview
Link to Robert Kanigel's Website

Other books by Robert Kanigel at BookBrowse
  • Vintage Reading : From Plato to Bradbury jacket
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