Summary and book reviews of No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet

By Melissa Fay Greene

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2011,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2012,
    368 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Book Summary

When the two-time National Book Award finalist Melissa Fay Greene confided to friends that she and her husband planned to adopt a four-year-old boy from Bulgaria to add to their four children at home, the news threatened to place her, she writes, "among the greats: the Kennedys, the McCaughey septuplets, the von Trapp family singers, and perhaps even Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, gave birth to sixty-nine children in eighteenth-century Russia."

Greene is best known for her books on the civil rights movement and the African HIV/AIDS pandemic. She's been praised for her "historian's urge for accuracy," her "sociologist's sense of social nuance," and her "writerly passion for the beauty of language."

But Melissa and her husband have also pursued a more private vocation: parenthood. "We so loved raising our four children by birth, we didn't want to stop. When the clock started to run down on the home team, we brought in ringers."

When the number of children hit nine, Greene took a break from reporting. She trained her journalist's eye upon events at home. Fisseha was riding a bike down the basement stairs; out on the porch, a squirrel was sitting on Jesse's head; vulgar posters had erupted on bedroom walls; the insult niftam (the Amharic word for "snot") had led to fistfights; and four non-native-English-speaking teenage boys were researching, on Mom's computer, the subject of "saxing."

"At first I thought one of our trombone players was considering a change of instrument," writes Greene. "Then I remembered: they can't spell."

Using the tools of her trade, she uncovered the true subject of the "saxing" investigation, inspiring the chapter "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, but Couldn't Spell."

A celebration of parenthood; an ingathering of children, through birth and out of loss and bereavement; a relishing of moments hilarious and enlightening - No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is a loving portrait of a unique twenty first-century family as it wobbles between disaster and joy.

1
Room for One More?

Lee, at ten, was the first in the family to mention adoption. He tore out of a friend's backyard at dusk when I honked from the driveway and clattered in cleats into the backseat, rosy and dirty under his baseball cap. "I have a surprise for you!" I said as he buckled in.

"Are you pregnant?" he happily cried.

"What?!" I stopped and turned around to look at him in amazement. It was 1998. I was forty-five. "Lee, no."

"Oh!" he said with disappointment, but then offered knowingly, "But did you find someone really, really sweet to adopt?"

I pulled into traffic and silently swung my arm over the seat to deliver a paper bag containing a brand-new bike lamp that had suddenly lost most of its sparkle.




It was uncanny that he'd asked this. A few years earlier I had struggled with the question of whether I was too old to give birth to a fifth child, and as it turned out, Donny and I were but a few months away from wondering if we might adopt a fifth child.

I'd been surprised, as I ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Discussion Questions

  1. How does the Greene/Samuel household compare to your family? Did you - or did your parents - grow up with a houseful of brothers and sisters? What was that like? Did you ever entertain thoughts of raising many children? What does a child gain by having half a dozen or more siblings? What does a child lose?

  2. What surprised you the most as Melissa described her initiation into the international adoption process? Were you surprised to learn about sometimes misleading adoption agency promotions and about the dire conditions of some institutionalized children? What happens when a child's physical, cognitive, or emotional needs overwhelm his or her new parents?

  3. How did Melissa balance her research into the medical ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Greene gives the best description I've ever read about what international adoption feels like from the inside, about the agonies of making the decision and choosing a child, and about the ambiguities involved in taking a child out of grim circumstances in the third world and trying to integrate him into an American family by means of Legos and water balloons.   (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).

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Media Reviews
People

Love knows no bounds - and no borders - in journalist Greene's ebullient valentine to her family of nine children... 'Who made you the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe?' a friend quips, but Greene doesn't apologize. Instead, she shows what it means to knit together a family that steers by the light... of what feels right and true.

The Washington Post

Readers... will find plenty of hilarity in this romping account of [Greene's] boisterous brood... [she] brings her well-honed research and reporting skills to this very personal story... this joy - experiencing it and conveying it to readers - is her greatest success.

Chicago Tribune

There are funny parenting books and wise parenting books. Rarely a funny and wise parenting book. Melissa Fay Greene really does have nine children, five of whom were adopted from foreign orphanages - but this book isn't a treacly, multicultural 'Brady Bunch.' Neither moralistic nor preachy, this memoir is about what it’s like to have heart, and grow children with heart. In another writer's less deft hands, children who herded goats in Ethiopia and then relocated to a big old house in Atlanta could have become a Southern Jewish version of Brad and Angelina. Greene captures the wild vicissitudes of her family's life and how individual difference enriches them all.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is [Melissa Fay Greene's] sprawling, imperfect, courageous and joyful account of the adoption process, warts and all... The moral of her story? Just the opposite of the title's warning. Don't be afraid to break the rules, to "steer by the light of what makes us laugh, what makes us feel good" - especially if it means biking in the house, with or without a helmet. With deep compassion, sparkling humor and an unshakable faith in the power of the whoopee cushion, she leads the way.

Kirkus Reviews

Greene is a writer of emotional impact... Her words are flush with humanity and all the messiness and comedy that humanity trails in its wake. She goes the distance, which is a beautiful thing to behold... Eventually, an enveloping sweetness and involvement swept away all but what is elementally grand about being a parent and nursing a child. An upbeat chronicle of a life that has been lived on the bright side of the road, its ruts beveled by naked love.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Greene captures the family's triumphant shared delight in one another's differences.

Booklist

Starred Review. A truly heartfelt memoir... [Greene] resists the urge to be cloying, however, infusing each chapter with a strong dose of humor and not shying away from the difficulties presented by adopting older children... It's all one big, happy family but also a very real one. Call them the twenty-first-century Waltons, and revel in the joy they have found and brought home for keeps.

Author Blurb David Guterson, author of The Other and Snow Falling on Cedars
About every five years, we get a book from Melissa Fay Greene. I've learned to wait for them eagerly, always excited to know what this thoughtful, sensitive writer is going to do next. Now- No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. That title tells you in no uncertain terms that you will laugh, but there's a lot more in these pages than humor, including Melissa's trademark generosity, optimism, winning self-deprecation, and high spirits. As a writer, a reader, and - like Melissa - the parent of an adopted child, I'm glad to know that this book will soon be out, and I hope it finds a very large audience.

Author Blurb Geraldine Brooks, author of People of the Book and March
Brimming with humor and love, the story of Greene's ever-expanding family is both unique and universal. Not everyone watches a son spear a Frisbee in mid-flight or weave a bullwhip out of the suburban shrubbery. But everyone at some point asks what it means to be a parent, a sibling, a family. Greene answers these questions with wit and wisdom. I finished her book with a renewed conviction that it is possible to shrink this wide world and to begin to bridge the chasms that have opened between us.

Author Blurb Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Second Nature: A Love Story
Joy to the world. Line by glorious line, with raw honesty and unforced hilarity, Melissa Fay Greene tells the story of the true mega-family of the millennium, which is not some reality-show curiosity shop, but her very own nine children: those who came home from the hospital and those who came home from the airport. People often assure me that I'll laugh and cry reading a book. I may smile; I may feel a lump in my throat. But I wept a dozen times reading No Biking and woke my own kids up with my laughter, as I stayed up all night with this, the Cheaper by the Dozen for a new planet. Melissa Fay Greene never set out to raise the world, only to raise her children. With this book, she raises the bar, wherever the word 'family' is spoken, for every single one of us.

Reader Reviews
Nancy

A Great Book on International Adoption
The author already has several children, but when they begin leaving for college; instead of facing an empty nest, she adopts children from other countries. The author's portraits of the children are terrific!

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The Books of Melissa Fay Greene

In the New Yorker review of Melissa Fay Greene's debut book, Praying for Sheetrock (1991), James Lardner writes, "Greene's achievement recalls Jane Austen's description of her novels as fine brushwork on a 'little bit (two inches wide) of ivory'...." Greene is a gifted journalist with a novelist's eye for detail, and the four award-winning books that have preceded No Biking in the House Without a Helmet are constructed around memorable, finely drawn characters and carefully observed settings.

Praying for Sheetrock Praying for Sheetrock (1991) examines the culture of McIntosh County, a tiny, rural locale on the coast of Georgia where civil rights fail to arrive, even well into the 1970s. Greene tells the true story of an entrenched and crooked white ...

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