In a Family Way

from "A Thousand Miles of Dreams" (Scanned From Cover)
Sunday, October 14, 2007

WHAT MOTHERS DO Especially When It Looks Like NothingBy Naomi Stadlen Tarcher/Penguin. 323 pp. $14.95

To every mother who dreads the question "What did you do all day?" Naomi Stadlen offers comfort, even vindication: "If we see 'nothing' when we look at a mother who is quietly being a mother, it is easy for her to feel as if she is doing nothing too. If she thinks she is doing nothing . . . there is only the speechless baby to experience how much she is doing." This may not be a groundbreaking assertion, but Stadlen, a British psychotherapist, comes to it from a unique perspective, drawing on interviews with mothers that are excerpted throughout the book. These accounts, unsparing in their honesty ("I could easily have rushed out to a phone booth," one mother reports, "and rung in and said: 'Sorry, folks, I can't cope. It's too hard.' "), serve as the backbone of Stadlen's call for greater recognition of the often invisible acts of mothering. Though the book is aimed at mothers of babies, its message will likely resonate with mothers -- and fathers -- of children of all ages.

CRAWLING A Father's First YearBy Elisha Cooper Anchor. 166 pp. $11.95

Elisha Cooper is a novice father, but like many of the mothers in Stadlen's book, he found parenthood at first "terrifying" but ultimately gratifying: "The only living thing I have ever taken care of was a goat," he frets on page 12, but by page 163 he is given to such aphorisms as, "This child breaks my heart, then fills it." The insights in Cooper's slender memoir are heartfelt if mundane -- "Acceptance of change is at the heart of parenting" -- and his drawings at the opening of each chapter are delightful.

THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM An Illustrated MemoirBy Ann Marie Fleming Riverhead. 170 pp. $14

The allure of an elusive family history turned Ann Marie Fleming into an amateur detective -- traveling the world, tracking down lost relatives, mining old documents. Fleming, a Canadian filmmaker, set out to find the truth about her great-grandfather, Long Tack Sam, a Chinese magician, acrobat and once-renowned vaudeville performer whose story had been nearly forgotten by history and distorted by her own family's imperfect memory. The book, an adaptation of her 2003 movie of the same name, brings together Fleming's playful drawings with an assortment of archival material, creating a visual tableau that carries the reader across continents and through some of the 20th century's most significant historical moments. Though Fleming never quite catches her peripatetic ancestor, her book shows, in colorful detail, that "history is relatives."

A THOUSAND MILES OF DREAMS The Journeys of Two Chinese SistersBy Sasha Su-Ling Welland Rowman & Littlefield. 369 pp. $17.95

Sasha Su-Ling Welland, an assistant professor of anthropology and women's studies at the University of Washington, takes a decidedly more scholarly approach to capture the lives of her grandmother Amy Ling, a doctor, and her great aunt Ling Shuhua, a writer at the center of a Chinese literary circle whose autobiography was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press (and whose mingling with the Bloomsbury set included an affair with Virginia Woolf's nephew, Julian Bell). Welland's forebears could fairly be called trailblazing, and though her presentation is at times dense, she deftly shows how their lives mingled with history.


¿ Gary Krist described Dave Eggers's What Is the What (Vintage, $15.95), which chronicles the life of a displaced Sudanese boy, as "a work of such simple power, straightforward emotion and genuine gravitas that it reminds us how memoirs can transcend the personal to illuminate large, public tragedies." It's an especially notable accomplishment, Krist observed, given that it is fiction.

¿ Although David Shenk admits to being a lousy chess player, his The Immortal Game: A History of Chess (Anchor, $14.95), rich with historical detail and engaging anecdotes, "possesses an almost inestimable advantage over the many other publications about chess," Michael Dirda noted. "It isn't entirely made up of page after page of little chessboards, decorated with knights, pawns and bishops in seemingly random patterns, followed by arcane notations such as 'N-QB3!!' "

¿ The Willow Field (Vintage, $14.95), the first novel by essayist, short story writer and memoirist William Kittredge, is a Western epic that "describes a way of life that hung on for decades after the rest of the country slipped into the effete and poisonous modern age," Ron Charles wrote. Its centerpiece, a journey through the Rockies, is "a showcase for the startling beauty of Kittredge's prose and his knowledge of the West."

Nora Krug is a writer in Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company