I didn’t specifically plan to read about foreign cultures in 2016, but the books I got for Christmas happened to include three translated from Swedish, one translated from Japanese, one set in rural Louisiana, and one about houses around the world–so these are what I’ve been reading! I reviewed the other two Swedish books last month.
Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, translated from Japanese by Dorothy Britton
This is the best-selling book in Japanese history, but I had never heard of it until Cocoon of Books reviewed it. Totto-chan was the childhood nickname of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who grew up to become a popular television personality in Japan. In the 1980s, she wrote this memoir of attending an alternative elementary school in the early 1940s. Totto-chan started first grade at a typical elementary school but was considered an incorrigible discipline problem. Her mother took her to visit Tomoe School, where the headmaster believed that children learn best from following their own interests and having plenty of field trips, conversations with adults, real-world projects, exercise, and music. Totto-chan thrived in this unusual school, held in a cluster of retired train cars. The book is a series of sweet anecdotes of childhood, many of which make serious points about educational practices and social norms. Tragically, Tomoe School was destroyed by American bombs during World War II and was never able to reopen. Kuroyanagi concludes the book with an essay about how the Tomoe experience shaped her into a successful person rather than a lifelong troublemaker (the core issue I’ve been studying in my work), and she gives updates on what some of the other alumni were doing in their forties. This is a very charming book that really made me think. It would be suitable for children over age 8 or so.
The Natural House Book by David Pearson
My partner Daniel picked up this used book, published in 1989, as a Christmas present for me because of my interests in architecture and environmentalism. It’s dated but still interesting. It explains how “natural houses” traditional in various parts of the world utilize environmentally-friendly principles and how the same ideas can be adapted in new construction. It also promotes the idea that a more natural house leads to a more natural life that’s more comfortable and healthy. I didn’t learn a whole lot from this book, but I did enjoy looking at it. It’s funny how the traditional stuff is as true as ever, while some of the advice about how to avoid toxins in new construction is outdated.
Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
This novel is related to the well-known Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which I’d started to read a few years ago but abandoned after a couple of chapters because the protagonist seemed like such a whiner, her mother seemed like such an evil bitch, and I just couldn’t stand people with terrible names like Siddalee and Necie y’alling each other all over the place. Daniel got me this book because, at a glance, he saw that part of it is about Girl Scouts and the author’s name is Rebecca and it seemed pretty well written. Well, it is–there are some exquisitely vivid passages, and everything seems very real, and at times that’s sweet and wonderful. The book is made up of interconnected short stories with different narrators, giving you a series of perspectives on a central Louisiana white Catholic family and their black maid and hired hand, first in the mid-1960s and then in the early 1990s.
I particularly appreciated the story in which Siddalee’s father, Big Shep, serves on the local draft board. He starts off feeling inspired by this patriotic duty, but as the Vietnam conflict goes more and more wrong, he begins to have doubts, particularly when it’s time to consider the draft status of boys he’s known since they were born whose value to their families is painfully obvious. In every debate, he’s crushed by the prejudices of the clean-handed businessmen who don’t understand his perspective as a rice farmer. The Vietnamese peasants are rice farmers, too. Big Shep, who in other people’s stories seems like such a tough guy, really struggles with his feelings here–and you, the reader, are the only one to hear about a lot of it.
But Siddalee’s mother is, in fact, a truly terrible and/or horribly damaged person. There were moments when I felt some sympathy for her, but mostly she’s dreadful. It’s no wonder Siddalee felt traumatized and fled and had years of therapy–and although the final story is supposed to be about how her healing process is working so well, now that she’s understood that God is really a woman and that she needs to treat herself like a baby forever, it mostly just made me wince. I don’t think I’ll read this one again.
Trigger warnings: Alcoholism and associated appalling behavior. Drunk driving. Child abuse, both violent and sexual. Unbearable dialect.
Shadows in the Twilight by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson
This book disappointed me by not being what I expected, but it’s really a very charming novel about an almost-twelve-year-old boy, suitable for reading by kids that age or even younger. Joel lives in small-town Sweden in 1957 with his father, and they miss his mother, who left them years ago. Joel wants to have an adventure and tries to get lost in the forest on purpose, but he realizes the foolishness of this before it’s too late. Then he does have an adventure: Crossing a street in a hurry, he gets hit by a bus at just the right angle so that he falls between the wheels and is completely unhurt. As the excitement of this Miracle fades, Joel begins to feel an uneasy sense of obligation: He must have been saved for a purpose; what is it? He finally decides that he must do a good deed. He makes the choice of what the good deed will be and figures out how to do it entirely on his own–with unintended results. Reading, you’re inside Joel’s head, seeing things as he sees them and being talked through all his reasoning, as well as enjoying the various types of imaginative play that lure him away from his mission temporarily.
People have been recommending Henning Mankell to me for years, so I picked up this title when I saw it cheap (and let my one-year-old daughter give it to me for Christmas) without realizing that although Mankell is generally a writer of suspenseful crime fiction, this isn’t an example of it, despite the promisingly creepy title and cover. [UPDATE: I later read An Event in Autumn.] I started reading it when I was in the mood for a mystery, and that’s what made it seem painfully slow, as if nothing was happening.
I’ll read this again sometime when I’m in the mood for following an eleven-year-old on his mild but really rather entertaining adventures. I mean, he gets to wander the steam tunnels under his town, masquerade as an aspiring saxophonist, and sneak into the telephone office in the middle of the night–what’s not to like?