One-Minute Book Reviews

January 18, 2009

What Does a Father Owe His Sons? Michael Dahlie Responds in His Witty and Intelligent First Novel, ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living’

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A well-off New Yorker finds comfort in his love for his sons after his business fails and his wife leaves him

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living: A Novel. By Michael Dahlie. Norton, 281 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Does it ever make sense to give up a beloved family tradition? Michael Dahlie offers surprising answers in his witty and intelligent comedy of manners, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living.

Arthur Camden cherishes his hereditary membership in the Hanover Street Fly Casters, a fictitious fly-fishing group founded in 1878 by his great-grandfather and 11 other patrician businessmen. Those pre-Freudian bluebloods weren’t too self-conscious to name their Catskills lodge Maidenhead Grange, though the club always barred women from the premises. And for decades that’s been fine with Arthur, who has looked forward to passing his membership on to his oldest son and seen the group’s annual Meeting-in-Full as the highlight of his year.

Then Arthur faces a series of calamities fostered by his sweet and vulnerable nature, which includes a lack of self-awareness that would have allowed him to anticipate the disasters. His family business goes bankrupt. His wife of 32 years leaves him. And he accidentally burns down Maidenhead Grange while lighting a fire in an ill-maintained chimney in order to seduce a date who insisted on seeing the lodge.

All of this might have devolved into a pseudo–P. G. Wodehouse novel full of absurd middle-aged or older men throwing trout heads instead of breadsticks. But Michael Dahlie takes a gentler approach as Arthur tries to regroup in the face of dismay of the Fly Casters and the bold sexual reconnaissance missions of his ex-wife, Rebecca.

“I hear she slept with absolutely everyone, and during your separation, no less,” an acquaintance tells him. “Most people have the sense to wait till the final paperwork is done. But from day one it was like she was on Spring Break.”

Amid such embarrassments, Arthur finds solace in his requited love for his sons, in the support of a few loyal friends, and in small pleasures such as the pine-needle liqueur he discovers when, hoping a vacation will help, he visits a boyhood friend in France. And for all its comedy, this novel has a serious theme.

At a family gathering on Nantucket, Arthur wonders how to help his younger son, David, who can’t seem to keep a job:

“It was a perplexing question: what sorts of things does a father owe his son? On one level the answer might best be nothing, since too much parental help so often had such obviously bad results. Moreover, there was no reason a person shouldn’t try to make his own way in such an obviously prosperous nation. But in terms of smaller-scale help, a leg up in the world, a little nudge forward, you could say that a father should at least give his son what his own father gave him.”

Dahlie’s thoughtful exploration of such issues gives his book a depth unusual in comedies of manners, which often ricochet from one bright line to another. America abounds with men blindsided not just financially but emotionally by the economic meltdown, and if Arthur has more money than most, he struggles with widely shared questions: How did I get into this fix? How can I get out of it? How will my losses affect my children? Many people who have stopped reading their 401(k) statements might profitably transfer their attention to this enjoyable novel.

Best line: A comment by the friend whom Arthur visits in France: “If there’s one thing the Swiss are good at, it’s running rehab centers. It’s like the Minnesota of Europe.”

Worst line: “Not unlike the outrage over Arthur’s distaste for salmon sandwiches and lobster Newberg, Arthur’s father was often worried ‘for the boy’s own good’ about one thing or another that he felt made Arthur look absurd.” The sentence doesn’t scan well grammatically, and the three Arthurs don’t help.

Published: June 2008. A paperback edition of A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living is due out in June 2009 www.michaeldahlie.com

Consider reading also: Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Born Twice, a novel of fatherhood that won Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize.

Janice Harayda wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2007

‘Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor’ Picks Up Where David Brooks’s Column in Today’s Times Left Off

David Brooks has an interesting op-ed column in today’s New York Times about the hazards of buying your offspring’s genetic material from a sperm bank. “What if parents are perpetually buying genes on the downward slope?” he wonders. “After all, for maximum success, you don’t want President Kennedy’s genes. You want Joseph Kennedy’s genes. You don’t want Bill Clinton’s genes. You want his father’s genes. What if we get the national equivalent of the 38th generation of the House of Windsor?

Harlyn Aizley explores related issues in her breezy memoir, Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor (Alyson, $14.95, paperback), reviewed on this site on Oct. 19, 2006 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/19/. Aizley and her lesbian partner found that “buying sperm is much like shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco.” But actually getting pregnant with those store-bought sperm proved much harder. Aizley’s wisecracking tone won’t appeal to everyone, but her step-by-step account of her experiences could be enlightening to both gay and straight parents who are considering this method of conception.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 17, 2007

Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired,’ a Memoir of Unemployment

An English advertising executive in Australia discovers that – surprise – caring for his children is harder than he thought

Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A couple of decades ago, American newspapers regularly published articles by men who had decided to stay home with their children and realized – to their amazement – that the work their wives did was actually hard. These gee-whiz accounts became a journalistic cliché fast enough that they have pretty well played themselves out here.

But apparently the trend still has life in Australia, where Nigel Marsh’s memoir of nine months at home with his family earned him spot next to Dan Brown and John Grisham on the bestseller lists. Not that Marsh signed on for the project as willingly as some of those former American “househusbands” who have since been recast as “stay-at-home dads.” Born and raised in England, he was the CEO of an advertising agency when a merger left him jobless. Instead of going right back to work, he decided that he wanted to stop being “a bit player in my own family” and spend more time with his wife, Kate, and four children under the age of 9.

Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of this experience that reads at times like a book fished out of an American time capsule from the 1980s, or a treatment for an offbeat Australian version of The Simple Life with the author alternately playing the roles of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and one of their hosts. Marsh pats himself on the back when his stint as a school cafeteria volunteer goes well, and he’s irritated when his wife doesn’t “thank” him for dressing his twin daughters. Fortunately, Kate sets him straight quickly: “Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” And his book becomes more interesting as he flings himself other goals – to lose 30 pounds, train for an ocean swimming race, and conquer the alcoholism that he’d been denying even while knocking back six beers a night after work.

By the end of the nine months, Marsh has achieved several of his aims. But his hope of achieving “a more balanced life” is another matter. Recidivism sets in almost as soon as he takes a new job as CEO of Leo Burnett Australia. And he concludes that all the books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because men can’t “have it all” any more than women can. That may be true, you have the sense that he’s known that all along. So what did he really gain from his experience?

In his time off, he quit drinking, lost weight and had many lyrical moments with his children, who play amusing and at times poignant roles in the book. And such gains, he suggests, were enough. “I may be struggling,” he admits, “but the struggle is slightly more enjoyable less damaging to those around me than it was a year ago.”

Best line: One of the strongest chapters deals with how people reacted after learning that Marsh had quit drinking. One group insisted bizarrely that he’d never had a problem with alcohol: “I was somehow offending these people’s sense of what a ‘real’ drunk’s story should be. I wasn’t a professional drunk – I was merely third division. Pathetic. My life hadn’t gone off the rails enough for them. If only I could have an affair, lose my job, or maim someone in an accident, I’d be a first-class guy. It just didn’t impress these people that I stopped before a dramatic disaster befell me.”

Worst line: Marsh’s treatment of most subjects is skin deep and sinks into psychobabble when he tries to sum up what he learned from his time off. He says the hiatus “started me on a personal journey” and that “I’m basically working on the habit of counting my blessings, not whining about the challenges.”

Reading group guide: A readers’ guide to Fat, Forty, and Fired was posted, before this review, on May 17, 2007, and is archived in the Totally Authorized Reading Group Guides category. This is guide is not just for book clubs but is also for individual readers who would like to learn more about the book.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.fatfortyandfired.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Fat, Forty, and Fired:

One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Losing His Job and Finding His Life

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and only for your personal use. The sale or reproduction of this guide is illegal except by public libraries that many copy it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

After losing his job as the CEO of an Australian advertising agency, Nigel Marsh realized he wanted to stop being “a bit player” in his family. So instead of going right back to work, he decided to spend more time with his wife and four children under the age of 9. Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of the nine months he spent pursuing that and other goals he set for himself – to lose 30 pounds, compete in an ocean swimming race, and conquer his alcoholism. Since achieving some of his goals, Marsh has returned to work and is chairman of the Leo Burnett agency in Australia, where his book was a bestseller.

Questions for Discussion
[All quotations and page numbers are based on the advance readers’ edition and may differ in the finished book.]

1. Marsh talks with a friend about wanting “a more balanced life” while they are exploring Tasmania early in the book. [Page 78] Do you think he really wanted this or thought he was supposed to want it? Does he achieve his definition of “a more balanced life”? Does he achieve yours?

2. In the chapter called Winegums,” Marsh concludes that books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because the idea of “having it all” doesn’t work for men any better than it does for women. He writes [Page 266]:

“Stressed executives all over the developed world now have the added stress of trying to do it all. All our striving for balance is making us less balanced, not more. The bar has been set at a completely unrealistic level. Many men try desperately hard to do it all – and then beat up on themselves when they aren’t home for their kids’ suppers. When they finally do get home, they feel like failures and deal with their frustration by being morose and shouting at the wife and kids.”

What evidence does he offer for this besides his experience? How strong is the case he makes for his point of view? Do you agree or disagree with him?

3. Fat, Forty, and Fired tells us little about the work that Marsh did at the Darcy agency before his job was merged out of existence, except for saying that he had to fire people when the shop closed. He doesn’t talk about any of the advertising campaigns he worked on or their rewards and frustrations. Would this kind of information have added to or detracted from his story? Why?

4. Born and raised in England, Marsh was living in Australia when he lost his job. To what degree do you think his background influenced his views? How might Fat, Forty, and Fired have been different if an American had written it?

5. Marsh says that when he was five years old, his parents sent him a boarding school in the west of England. He calls such institutions “soul-destroying quasiprisons.” [Page 43] How might this experience have affected his views?

6. At one point Marsh is annoyed that his wife doesn’t thank him for dressing his twin daughters. [Page 64] Kate puts him in his place. “When do I get thanked?” she asks. “I dress the girls all the time and you never thank me. Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” [Page 64]

How does this passage relate to your life? Some people might call Marsh a sexist for expecting to be thanked for dressing his daughters. Would you agree or disagree?

7. Did you sense that there was a subtext to Marsh’s relationship with his wife that he couldn’t discuss without violating her privacy? What was the subtext?

8. Marsh speaks vaguely of his financial worries, such as when he writes about letting the nanny go and moving. But in Fat, Forty, and Fired, he seems mostly unconcerned with finding work. He describes no serious efforts to look for a job and, when he gets one, it seems to arrive out of the blue, almost as a deus ex machina. Nor does he cast unemployment as the crushing assault on the ego that it is for many men. Why do you think this is so? Do you think his feelings were too painful to write about? That he was confident he could get another job? That something else was going on?

9. Fat, Forty, and Fired includes bits of Marsh’s philosophy of life. Which do you remember best? Which do you think he was or wasn’t able to live by?

10. Marsh never explains how he came to write Fat, Forty, and Fired – specifically, whether he knew he was going to write a book when he began his time off. Some critics would say that if he knew this, he had an ethical obligation to say so, because it makes a difference to the story. We might see his money worries differently if we knew he had received a book advance that wasn’t an option for other men. Or we might suspect him of having sought out some experiences because they would make “good copy” or believe he had extra motivation to achieve some goals because a book advance was riding on them. Would it make a difference to you if you knew Marsh had received or not received a book contract before starting what he calls a “personal journey”? Or does the book justify itself? Note: Since this guide appeared, Nigel Marsh has posted a response to this question in the “Comments” section. Thanks, Nigel! His response follows. Jan

Hi Janice,

Subject: ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’

A friend just showed me this and I wanted to provide some answers regarding question 10.

I didn’t decide to write a book about my experiences until 4 months into my time off work, moreover I didn’t get a book deal until well over a year after I had returned to work.

Hope this helps provides some useful context for your book club readers.

Thank you for taking an interest in ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’.

Best wishes from Down Under

Nigel Marsh

Vital Statistics:
Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95. www.fatfortyandfired.com Published: April 2007

A review of Fat, Forty, and Fired appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on May 17, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The guides are posted frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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