I recently read two novels translated into English, a book written in English that attempts to translate “boy world” into ideas parents can understand, and an English mystery with some parallels to the Swedish mystery I’d just read.
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, translated from Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum
A young man finds himself drifting through life in 1978 Tokyo, recently divorced and missing an old friend nicknamed The Rat. The narrator and most of the other characters have no names (a few have nicknames) which contributes to the feeling of foggy drifting through life that pervades the book. The narrator works in advertising and one day decides to use, in a brochure, a photograph that had been enclosed in a letter from The Rat. This choice brings him to the attention of mysterious and powerful men determined to locate the impossible sheep depicted in the photo.
The narrator quits his job and travels with his girlfriend to rural Hokkaido to search for the impossible sheep and, perhaps, The Rat as well. Will he unravel the mystery before he himself unravels, alone in a big house that doesn’t belong to him on a road that soon will be blocked by snow all winter?
Although some elements of this story are very unusual and imaginative, the constant small details of life keep it realistic.
An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson
Inspector Kurt Wallander, edging toward retirement, is considering buying a house in the country. A colleague happens to have a relative–now in a nursing home–who owns just such a house, so he loans Wallander the key and tells him to take a look. It would be a nice little place if not for that skeletal hand sticking out of the lawn. This won’t be the cozy home Wallander imagined, but now he’s got another mystery to solve!
It turns out to be a really cold case: The woman’s been dead for decades, and it seems like nobody ever missed her. The police chief isn’t willing to dedicate resources to the case, but Wallander keeps trying because he just has to know what happened. His quest takes him in a couple of surprising loops before he ultimately works it out with the help of an even older policeman. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with his own life in its gloomy autumn. Is the adult daughter who’s living with him (and is also a detective) more of an annoyance or a help? Is a cozy retirement really what he wants?
Kurt Wallander is like the Reginald Wexford of Sweden. I’ve read many of the Inspector Wexford novels by Ruth Rendell (see reviews here), and the one I got for Christmas turned out to be pleasingly similar to An Event in Autumn.
The Vault by Ruth Rendell
Reginald Wexford has retired from the police force, but the murder mysteries just won’t leave him alone! He and his wife Dora are spending some time in London, living in their daughter’s carriage house, when an old friend asks Wexford to help him solve a case:
Homeowners decided to replace an urn of flowers in the center of their patio, but when they picked up the old urn, they noticed a manhole accessing the space under the patio–which is connected to the basement they didn’t know their house had, as there’s no door to the basement stairs inside the house. Under their patio are four dead bodies, and although three of them have been there longer than these people have owned the house, one is more recent. (Alert Rendell fans will recognize the three older bodies as the ones hidden at the end of A Sight for Sore Eyes, so this book is a sequel, in a weird sort of way. You don’t need to have read A Sight for Sore Eyes to appreciate The Vault, and none of the characters in The Vault is as scary-sick as those in A Sight for Sore Eyes, which I won’t read again.)
Wexford’s investigation is derailed by his adult daughter’s serious injury, which reveals her involvement in an embarrassing affair. As has often been the case with Sylvia’s adventures, Wexford’s thinking about her situation weaves together with his thinking about the mystery at hand, leading to some clever realizations.
Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman
This book could be extremely useful to the parents of suburban sons who are involved in sports and in a Boy World of male friendships. My personal experience raising a son (who just turned 14) aligns with only about 20% of the experience of parenting boys that this author describes. I’m pretty sure she’s on to something with the social roles and rules she describes; it’s just that this particular Boy World is not as universal as she seems to believe.
The section on managing the role of video games in boys’ lives is pretty good. Much of the advice on how to approach discipline–what requires firm action vs. what you can let slide, how to bring up difficult topics, which punishments are really effective–is helpful, too, and based on principles that are readily adaptable to different situations. There’s also a chapter on inclusion of children with developmental disorders that I thought was very sensitively written and realistic about what you can and can’t expect when teaching a neurotypical child to behave appropriately toward those with special needs.
This book’s biggest failure, in my opinion, is its handling of the reality that some boys are gay or bisexual and some boys’ closest friends are girls. Wiseman acknowledges these ideas, briefly. She invited some gay boys to tell her about the difficulties of coming out, and she addresses the issues of misogynist and homophobic bullying, but those are special sections. The book in general betrays a very strong assumption that “your son” runs with a pack of boys and has the hots for girls. Most upsetting to me was her answer to the question, “Is it okay for my son to have girls in his bedroom?” to which her answer, in full, is, “No.” I mean, really! That issue isn’t so simple even if your son is heterosexual, and if you have any doubt about his orientation, it’s very confusing! The author also believes that all parents drive drunk sometimes, so she’s really just not on my wavelength.
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