I have enjoyed Knausgaard rough memoirs, and Autumn is very different: a series of essays and letters to his unborn daughter. The sweetness is surprising at first, but there are plenty of darker corners as the author tackles buttons, lice, tin cans, children frightened by thunder, and the embarrassment of trying to get rid of a large wad of gum at his editor’s house. Nothing escapes his critical gaze.
Best read in small doses, and while some of the essays are just brilliant, others are less so.
Perfect Little World tells the story of a crazy experiment, one that could only be financed by an eccentric millionaire: raising 10 children for 10 years in a tight community with their parents (who are forbidden from having any other children!) and a large cast of psychologists and other helpers. The story is told from the perspective of a teenaged single mother who is seeking an environment to raise her son that will be more nurturing that what she can expect as a high school graduate in a small town with no family to help out.
Of course, the experiment is bound to run into some issues, many of them apparently not foreseen by the researchers or the founder. I liked the witty observations of the complicated relationships between the adults (the children seem to do quite well, thank you very much). There is also a wonderful portrait of an older coworker of the mom’s who becomes a substitute father and grandfather. After all the adventures, the ending seems abrupt and overly sweet, but the story itself is a lot of fun.
Disaster Falls is the hauntingly-named part of a Utah river where the author’s son drowned during what was supposed to be a fun family rafting adventure. The book recounts the aftermath of the death on himself, his wife, and older son. It’s all very somber and anguished and very beautiful.
And very sad. And, as is often the case with memoirs, it feels quite indiscreet to read it.
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully recounts the author’s obsession with finding the tormentor from this sixth-grade year in an exclusive Swiss boarding school. I found the memories from boarding school fascinating, with a mix of old-world propriety, eccentric headmaster, and wealthy students — but the adventures of the elusive bully bored me. Not that the level of criminal inventiveness is not remarkable, involving a fake Duke, phantom countries, and an entirely fraudulent trust that extracted millions of dollars from rather gullible seekers of capital. But the minutiae of the story overshadows the portrait of a textbook psychopath.
The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child is a scholarly review of chid-rearing practices in the United States that shows the evolution of the concept of children from hardworking additions to the household to today’s pampered and helicoptered weaklings. It’s hard to believe that the Society for he Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in the late 19th century before anyone thought of doing something equivalent for children!
The author uses many stories from the childhoods of well-known historical figures to illustrate her points and it’s also interesting to see how the economic context shaped the changes in the lives of children rather than any grand theory of child-rearing. That said, she has a long rant against modern books about child-rearing that accuses them (correctly) of not considering the historical perspective, a rant that seems irrelevant and needlessly petulant.
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years is couched as a memoir but reads more as a series of essays about motherhood, written by a mother of now-tweenaged children. It took me a long time to get into the book, I thought because the immersive approach of the author to motherhood seemed to be simply too much. And then I understood that she is a world-class worrier. How difficult it must be to raise children while being pathologically worried about them! Amongst all the worries, there are many little gems, stories of lovely moments with her children when they make new leaps of logic and ask questions we did not think they could ask.
In an even tone, Kid Moses tells the story of Moses, a young child who lives in Tanzania, orphaned and homeless. He gets beaten up, gets a job, spends some time in a cushy orphanage, escapes with his best friend, and generally makes his own way through life.
It’s sad. And we know, hope, pray, that he will make it. Quite a feat of writing from a child’s point of view.