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Michael Lewis book review in LA Times

Published in book review section of LA Times

Finally getting around to posting this review from LA Times of Michael Lewis’ daddy memoir. I love Lewis’ style, but in the end felt weirdly depressed reading his cynical take on the basic drudgery of raising kids…

Pity the poor modern dad. Or at least pity poor Michael Lewis, the father of three whose half-hearted, cranky and mostly clumsy attempts to live up to the modern ideal of fatherhood is breezily but brutally described in the new memoir Home Game.

Lewis, whose previous books have dealt mainly in the business of sports, here tackles the trickier territory of fatherhood—or more specifically, what he calls “the raw deal” dealt to dads today. Drawn from diaries he published in the online magazine Slate immediately following the births of his children Quinn, Dixie and Walker, Home Game mixes cringe-worthy tales of his own failings with repeated gripes about the no-win bind fathers today face.

On the one hand, he writes, fathers are now expected to join moms shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches of childcare, changing diapers, resolving squabbles, divvying up bottles of pumped breast milk and otherwise at least appearing to share in the grunt work that previous generations of fathers shirked with mysterious impunity. But even as they pine for the days when the only real job requirement for fatherhood was a “capacity for detached amusement,” dads today are constantly reminded of their own irrelevance, incapability and essential uselessness. While the more-involved dad of today gets some credit, they’re mostly, he says, viewed with pity: “The world looks at him schlepping and fetching and sagging and moaning beneath his new burdens and thinks: OH… YOU… POOR… BASTARD.”

Lewis is a funny, frank and engaging writer and he gets a lot of comic mileage telling tales at his expense -?his experiences in a Parisian Gymboree class and a Hawaiian hotel pool are just the sort of laugh-out-loud anecdotes that fill warts-and-all parenting memoirs like Christine’s Mellor’s “The Three Martini Playdate” or Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Mother on Fire.” The difference here, of course, is the parent laying out the laundry - of the multitude of recent books that purport to comically expose the harsh realities of family life, precious few have been penned by dads (which may have something to do with conventional wisdom in publishing circles that guys are as likely to buy a book about parenting as they are in the latest by Jody Picoult - i.e. not at all).

Home Game may very well be the book to bury that sad stereotype, peppered as it is with guy-friendly sports and financial analogies and jibes at the nurturing, accommodating, doting ideal of the modern dad. But it’s also strangely dispiriting - those well-intentioned pops who actually buck industry thinking and read the book will likely finish it feeling, if possible, even less equipped and more demoralized in their efforts to overcome the example set by dads of previous generations who rarely changed a diaper and wouldn’t know a Baby Bjorn from a Bugaboo.

Still, it’s refreshing to hear a dad describe so vividly the uglier aspects of the job. The birth of his daughter, which a mushier dad might observe with humbled awe, inspires a particularly intense bout of harrumphing. “No one actually cares how dad is doing,” he writes. “His fatigue, his worries, his tedium, his disappointment at the contents of hospital vending machines - these are better unmentioned.” As for the act of childbirth itself, which fathers now routinely watch unfold in its entirety and possibly even videotape: “it’s a hideous secret to be kept.”

His list of grievances continues outside the delivery room. Inspiring particular ire are the host of newfangled parenting products, services and safeguards now considered mandatory parental accessories. That commercial pressure, combined with the heightened expectations in housework, add up to what he calls “a Dark Age of Fatherhood.”

But it it really so bad for dads? It’s hard to work up much sympathy for Lewis at least, who views the care and feeding of small children as miserable work and seems so preoccupied with his own predicament that he takes little note of what many parents, even the most detached dads, view as the true dividend of raising small kids: wonder. Yes, little kids are messy and bossy and unreasonable. They’re also miraculous and fascinating and often really, really funny. These are of course harder qualities to describe in a comic memoir—your precious three-year-old daughter’s etherial specialness is a lot less funny than the humdinger of a story about the time she peed in the hotel pool. 

While Lewis makes some noise toward the end about how the dirty work of parenting forges indelible bonds—you know, genuine parental feeling. And when confronted with a family crisis like a nasty respiratory virus or his wife’s debilitating bout of post-partrum panic, he displays the sort of compassion and accommodation that dads from what he longingly calls “the glory days” would surely find hopelessly wimpy. But even so, he’s clearly not going out without a gripe.

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