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Monday, June 28, 2010

"Poop Happened," "The Invisible Bridge," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Tuesday June 29, 2010
MEMOIRS. Three books evoke the charms, and trials, of modern fatherhood.
NA pages

Reviewed by Michael Lindgren
Ugly ties and superfluous power tools aren't the only things being wrapped up for Father's Day this year. In our post-feminist, recession-wracked era of unconditional love, flex time and gender-neutral diaper stations, the very definition of fatherhood itself is under constant revision. These three books are wildly different, but they share a warmth and emotional openness that would have been utterly foreign to men of my grandfather's generation.
Bruce Feiler's "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me" (Morrow, $22.99) leads off the pack in sobering fashion. In 2008, Feiler, the indefatigable author of "Walking the Bible," received a diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer, forcing him to confront every parent's nightmare: considering the life his two very young daughters would have without him. With this in mind, Feiler convened a "council of dads," six close friends whose cumulative presence would serve as a composite surrogate father to his girls. The men Feiler enlisted are a murderers' row of compassion and wisdom, exemplars of "a new kind of maleness" who "talk about things that were once the exclusive domain of women's magazines and daytime chat shows: our children, our feelings, even our bodies." Fortunately, Feiler's medical treatment -- which he documents in a series of harrowing journal entries -- has proved to be effective. There may be no need for the council, but Feiler's conversations with his potential stand-ins are candid and moving. "The Council of Dads" exemplifies the mysterious process by which bad news can alter our perspective and reorder our priorities, and it celebrates the ever-expanding level of emotional intimacy that men are increasingly free to engage.
Just because Donald N.S. Unger holds a Ph.D. and has "a stake in opening up the definition of family and of family roles," doesn't mean he's not ready to kick some ass. What jumps out from "Men CAN: The Changing Image and Reality of Fatherhood in America" (Temple, $25) is not its careful sociological analysis, but rather Unger's un-academic irritability when confronted with what he considers stifling stereotypes. "I'm not being a mother," he snarls, mid-diaper, at one feckless woman. "I'm being a parent." Semiotics aside, Unger is especially illuminating on the role of the media and other cultural forces in shaping our shared perceptions. For instance, he exposes as fundamentally reactionary and unhelpful all those "Doofus Dad" ads, in which inept men are parodied as "substantially incapable of doing work that they don't want to do anyway." The book is incisive and fair-minded, too, about the competing agendas that often surround parenthood. Unger notes that feminists, for example, may feel encroached upon by men's relatively recent arrival to the domestic sphere, but he concludes that to fall victim to infighting is to participate in a "circular firing squad." Although at times Unger gets lost in his pet analyses -- such as a long examination of the short-lived, now-forgotten sitcom "Kevin Hill" -- in general, "Men CAN" is succinct and persuasive.
Which is fine, except that sometimes even ill-tempered social scientists need to laugh. It's a relief, then, to turn to "No Wonder My Parents Drank: Tales From a Stand-Up Dad" (Simon & Schuster, $25). A title like that doesn't exactly raise high literary expectations, so it takes a while to realize that Jay Mohr is not as dumb as he looks. In his unsubtle way, he has sincere and perceptive things to say about the rewards of fatherhood. That said, on a certain level the only objective way to evaluate this kind of book is to meter how frequently it produces, by fair means and foul, audible laughter. Judged this way, "No Wonder My Parents Drank" is masterly, especially when Mohr does things like experiment with adult diapers. Poop jokes aside, Mohr is unabashed about his love for his son and the ways that being a parent has made him a better person. This, in a small, unlikely way, is remarkable. Mohr, after all, is a celebrity; he lives in Hollywood. Being a shallow, self-absorbed jerk is practically part of his job description, and yet here he is saying, "I am an 'I love you' type of guy. ... We are the first generation of 'I love you' dads." Like Bruce Feiler and Donald Unger and millions of other fathers, he's not afraid to value communication and empathy. That's good news for everybody.
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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POOP HAPPENED!: A History of the World from the Bottom Up
Sarah Albee Illustrated by Robert Leighton
ISBN 978-0802720771
NA pages

Reviewed by Abby McGanney Nolan
Full of scatological facts, jokey illustrations and groan-inducing puns ("The Origin of Feces," anyone?), this entertaining chronicle also sneaks in plenty of information about disease, science and communal living since hunters and gatherers decided to stop roaming and settle down. Discerning readers will be happily disgusted by sidebars about smelly castle moats and occupations that involved scavenging in sewers. And no one will miss the immense significance of clean water and decent plumbing.
In her chatty, informative style, Sarah Albee shows that civilization didn't evolve in a straight line. In medieval Europe, the ancient Roman plumbing system was thrown over in favor of filth and sanitary superstition. Insects combined with bad sewage systems to kill more people than wars did, and the habits of the upper classes were neither hygienic (King Louis XIV had two baths in his entire adult life) nor easy on servants (who had to handle all sorts of cleaning up). Albee has dug deep into the past (the book also features plenty of edifying archival photos and illustrations); but, in closing, she also touches on the future: new technology for toilets and diapers as well as the perils of accumulated waste. It's a dirty world, and someone's got to wade through it.
Abby McGanney Nolan frequently reviews for The Washington Post Book World.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
ISBN 978-0545125086
NA pages
$17.99; ages 9 - 12

Reviewed by Abby McGanney Nolan
Mark Twain, one of the fathers of American literature, was also parent to one Susy Clemens, who decided at age 13 to fix the popular impression of her father. People "think of Mark Twain as a humorist, joking at everything. ... I never saw a man with so much variety of feeling as Papa has." Within this inspired picture book are passages from Susy's biography (sewn into the seam as mini books), which she began in secret before gaining full cooperation from her subject.
Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham have collaborated before on a book about a spirited daughter ("What to Do About Alice?"), but even Alice Roosevelt would take a back seat to Mark Twain. Kerley nicely sets up Susy's biography with her text, and Fotheringham's illustrations bring both father and daughter to life (even when young Samuel Clemens is shown pretending "to be dying so as not to have to go to school").
In one of the book's many handsome spreads, Fotheringham presents the Twain's Victorian Gothic residence as a huge dollhouse open to view. Susy's observations about her father -- how he conferred with their cats, how he paced and speechified at dinner, and how he threw his shirts out of the window when they were missing buttons -- are all depicted as happening at once so that six Twains, five Susys and at least 9 cats are visible. Perhaps this full-to-bursting book will lead some young readers to write their own in-house biographies over the summer. Just in case, Kerley includes instructions.
Abby McGanney Nolan frequently reviews for The Washington Post Book World.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Julie Orringer
ISBN 978 1 4000 4116 9
602 pages

Reviewed by Donna Rifkind
The cover of Julie Orringer's first novel shows a photograph of the Chain Bridge, one of Budapest's most-loved landmarks. The picture was taken as World War II was drawing to a close, just after retreating German troops had bombed the Hungarian capital's bridges to delay the advancing Soviet offensive. In Orringer's cover photo, the Chain Bridge is a shattered remnant: Only emptiness is suspended between the pillars flanking the Danube. What we see, in that stunned moment, is an invisible bridge.
Long before the bombing of Budapest occurs at the end of this novel, Orringer uses the symbolism of invisible bridges in many inventive ways, re-engineering traditional dimensions of time and space, calibrating the immensity of world-war deaths against the specifics of one family's life, and building emotional connections between parents and children, husbands and wives, the preserved and the obliterated. And gradually, over time, she shows how supple those connections are and how instantly they can be broken.
"The Invisible Bridge" is an intricately layered historical novel that needs plenty of room to be effective, and at 600 pages it shouldn't be a paragraph shorter. Even so, its first half demands some patience. Orringer has deliberately backloaded most of the book's urgency into its later wartime sections, but its initial 300 pages, which roll out with a stately and sometimes prosaic accessibility, are an indispensable foundation for this account of the very particular way in which Hungary's Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust.
The novel begins in 1937 in a golden haze of promise, as 22-year-old Andras Levi, the son of a lumberyard owner from a village in Hungary's eastern flatlands, departs for Paris to study at the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture, where he has won a scholarship. Andras is glad to leave behind the quota restrictions that prevent Jewish students from enrolling in Hungary's universities, though while en route to France he can't ignore the menacing signs ("Jews Not Wanted") and Nazi flags in the small-town German train stations.
Paris, for Andras, is a giddy circuit of academic lectures, spirited political arguments in Latin Quarter cafes, all-night design projects and a job at the Sarah-Bernhardt Theatre, which is mounting a new Brecht play. "I have a desperate garret; it's everything I hoped for," he writes happily to his older brother, who has remained in Hungary but is hoping to attend medical school in Italy.
Soon enough, romance enters Andras' Paris idyll in the form of Klara Morgenstern, a gray-eyed ballet teacher nearly a decade his senior who brings along a sullen teenage daughter and a past full of secrets. But the window to Andras' bright future fractures into shards after his student visa is revoked and he's forced to return to Budapest. When war breaks out in September 1939, he's immediately conscripted into the Hungarian labor service. His exalted visions of art and architecture are erased by the shock of hard labor, and he's transformed from a young man with the luxury of choices to "a speck of human dust, lost on the eastern edge of Europe."
At this point we begin to visualize the connection between the book's first half, where Orringer so assiduously humanizes Andras, and the second, where she just as painstakingly chronicles his forced dehumanization, along with the dispersal of his family and the dismantling of an entire world. Yet in a landscape gone dark, here and there we perceive an invisible bridge: an improbable reunion; an impossible rescue; a tale of survival that hinges on a bread crust, a drop of melted snow and a poorly covered mass grave.
We have seen images like these many times before, in the literature of eyewitnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz, and increasingly in the fiction of younger writers, who are roughly the age of those eyewitnesses' grandchildren (Orringer is 37). In what way is "The Invisible Bridge" different, and why is it important?
With the writers of Orringer's generation who choose the Holocaust as a subject, we're watching an inevitable transition from a literature that can remember to a literature that can only imagine. Does the winking magic realism of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" call more attention to the author than to his subject? Does the Hollywood-style feel-goodery of David Benioff's "City of Thieves" put too smooth a polish on mass suffering and death?
Orringer avoids these pitfalls and many more by making brilliant use of a deliberately old-fashioned realism to define individual fates engulfed by history's deadly onrush. She maintains a fine balance between the novel's intimate moments -- whose emotional acuity will be familiar to admirers of her 2003 story collection, "How to Breathe Underwater" -- and its panoramic set-pieces. Even those monumental scenes manage to display a tactful humility: This is a story, they keep reminding us, (BEG ITAL)and it's not bringing anybody back.(END ITAL) With its moving acknowledgment of the gap between what's been lost and what can be imagined, this remarkably accomplished first novel is itself, in the continuing stream of Holocaust literature, an invisible bridge.
Donna Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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