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in brief

‘The Splendid Things We Planned,’ ‘The Heathen School,’ ‘Parentology,’ ‘Life Is a Wheel’

THE SPLENDID THINGS WE PLANNED: A Family Portrait

By Blake Bailey

Norton, 272 pp., $25.95

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Lauded for his biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, Bailey takes up his own history, which unfolds as sadly and troubled as any he’s chronicled. His parents seem almost comically mismatched — they met on a blind date in New York, where Burck Bailey was in law school and Marlies was a German immigrant and determined free spirit. Bound by an unplanned pregnancy and young marriage, they raised two sons, Scott and Blake, in a series of suburban enclaves in Burck’s native Oklahoma. Things go bad quickly. Their father works all the time and their mother, pursuing a belated college degree, enters “a Madame Bovary phase.” Older son Scott, formerly a lock for town golden boy and family star, starts down a path toward alcoholism, drug abuse, and worse. Blake seizes the moment anyone who’s experienced sibling rivalry will recognize: He becomes “indisputably the Good Son,” only later realizing the costs associated with that role.

Bailey maintains an almost impossible balance between stringent assessment — his brother’s life was “repulsive,” as he told him after one cataclysmic fight in their 20s — and a kind of unflappable empathy toward Scott, their parents, and even himself. He’s wise to the ways of brothers — their crazy loyalty, brutal competition, and yearning for approval — and to the horror-movie dread familiar to anyone who grew up in a chaotic family. In the end, the book is as clear-eyed and heartbreaking as any of his acclaimed biographies, minus their subjects’ great achievements, of course — yet every bit as compelling.

THE HEATHEN SCHOOL: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

By John Demos

Knopf, 352 pages, $30

“Oh, what a wonderful thing it is that the hand of Divine Providence has brought me here,” wrote Henry Obookiah early in the 19th century, “from that heathenish darkness where the light of divine truth never had been.” The heathenish dark place he came from was Hawaii; “here” was Connecticut, where Obookiah and fellow Pacific Island sailors found themselves stranded in 1809. Legend has it they walked into Yale University and asked to be given “learning.” What happened next is the subject of this strange and fascinating narrative history from John Demos, an emeritus professor at Yale and expert on American life in the early 1800s. It was, he hastens to remind readers, a time of extreme piety, boundless confidence, and fear of ethnic difference.

The first classes at the Foreign Mission School (informally known as “the heathen school’’), founded in 1816 in Cornwall, Conn., comprised mostly Hawaiians (along with some New England whites, future missionaries, who wanted to learn their ways), who were instructed in literacy and mathematics, but also in Christianity so thet they could be sent out to convert peoples throughout the world. Later classes included people from India and China, but most notably Cherokees; it was the scandalous marriages of two Cherokee men to local white women that led to the school’s collapse. Demos gracefully interweaves the two couples’ stories with the historical and intellectual context in which they took place, raising key questions (especially, and devastatingly, “[m]ight not the heathen prefer to remain as they were?”).

PARENTOLOGY: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Tired to Ask

By Dalton Conley

Simon & Schuster, 237 pp., illustrated, $25

Advice books on how to raise children are thick on the ground these days, a growth industry that depends on parental insecurity and thrives on the confusing welter of studies that purport to prove which preschool philosophy, reading instruction method, or SAT prep course is going to produce the happiest, most successful kids. Enter sociologist Dalton Conley. His “Parentology” is at once a meta-guide to the research in child-rearing and a first-hand account of the choices he made in raising his own two kids. It’s also a perfect candidate for the time capsule: a snapshot of the way we live and parent now, afloat in a sea of data, making it all up as we go along.

Conley’s a wisecracking, proudly iconoclastic dad, as becomes clear when you read his children’s names. E, his firstborn, was “the first kid to write her name in preschool,” while little brother Yo has seven middle names, “the longest name on record in New York City.” Their names were inspired, Conley writes, by research suggesting that kids with unusual names have better impulse control than other kids (it didn’t work, he adds; Yo “is as impulsive as a cocaine-addicted lab rat”). E and Yo, teenagers now, seem to have turned out well, suggesting that warmth and attention, no matter how nutty, are what matter most; as Conley writes: “Scientific parenting is my ode of parental love.”

LIFE IS A WHEEL: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America

By Bruce Weber

Scribner, 352 pages, illustrated, $26

Riding a bike across the country is hard work; doing it at age 57 when, as Bruce Weber writes, his body was “both perfectly healthy and falling apart,” sounds either foolish or heroic. In this lovely account, Weber manages to avoid both, focusing instead on the beauty of the country he passed through (from Oregon to New York; he took the northern route), the kindness of the people he met, and his own musings on life, love, and death.

As an obituary writer for The New York Times, he’s got more professional experience than most with the last subject, while the death of a lifelong friend a few days into his trip makes it personal. Love is more complicated, and for Weber, a lifelong bachelor, obviously scary. But the lessons of bicycling long distance apply here, too: “When you move forward, even slowly, things change; when you stand still, they don’t.” At the end of this sweet, thoughtful journey, Weber is in a different place. Readers will enjoy going there with him.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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