Book review

Dads of all sorts share hard-earned wisdom

Staff writerJune 21, 2009 

  • Edited by Ben George

    Ecco, 304 pages

Fatherhood sure has changed since Ward Cleaver raised the Beaver. Need proof? Check out "The Book of Dads," edited by Ben George.

A new collection of essays by fathers of all sorts - biological, step, estranged, transgendered - this exploration of fatherhood is the book George wanted but couldn't find when he became a dad.

"I wanted something about every stage of fatherhood, in a meaningful way, not just the practical things," says George, who teaches writing at UNC-Wilmington and edits the literary journal Ecotone.

The result: Stories both poignant and funny that capture what it means to be a dad in the early 21st century.

In "The Night Shift," Ben Fountain describes parental sleep deprivation and how he mastered the stealth nap: "Making indoor tents and forts was usually good for a nap, a few minutes of 'pretend' sleep while the kids were making improvements to the tent. Getting shot in the war could lead to a couple of blissful minutes, and I was always willing to be buried beneath whatever came to hand, leaves, Legos, sofa cushions, shoes."

North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton, the 64-year-old dad of a grown daughter and three youngsters, offers a whole chapter of hard-earned wisdom.

"Before the baby is born, go ahead and install the car seat and put together the crib. This will take four to seven days," he writes. "For safe installation of the car seat, certain hooks are located out of sight in the backseat where you'd slide your hand if you were looking for something lost. If your car doesn't have these hooks, you are required by law to buy a new car."

Other essays deal with issues even trickier than car seat installation.

UNC-Wilmington's David Gessner uses a graphic novel format to explore his relationships with his daughter and his late father.

Sebastian Matthews, who teaches at Warren Wilson College and Queens University's MFA program, writes of how he has come to see child rearing as training for death and dying. "The lack of control you finally recognize and then succumb to, the grip (already an illusion) slackening from firm to grasping to loose."

Rick Bragg writes of being a stepfather. Jennifer Finney Boylan tells of transitioning from man to woman, and from daddy to "maddy" to her two sons.

Charles Baxter, writing about picking up his son at college, describes how time crawls when kids are little. "Then they grow, and time speeds up; once you couldn't get away from them, and then they're never around."

It's a cliché, yes, but that's because it's so, so true.

pkelley@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5271

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