Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting
By Jennifer Traig. (Ecco, 352 pages, $26.99.)

 

Jennifer Traig’s curiosity about the history of child rearing, how kids grow up in other cultures and why modern Americans parents do what they do led her to write “Act Natural.”

Turns out that people have done some strange things that today seem unthinkable, but which might be fun to share at a cocktail party. In ancient Rome, for example, child abandonment was perfectly legal — and it happened to 20%-40% of all infants. Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child at Versailles in front of an audience so large it almost caused a stampede. In the 1920s and ’30s, babies commonly slept in window-mounted cages that hung out of apartments like air conditioning units. In the 1960s and ’70s, parenting books advised feeding babies coffee and Coke.

Deploying a lively, chatty tone, Traig weaves in personal anecdotes as she relays her research. When sharing the statistic that children argue, on average, 3.5 times per hour, Traig says she considers this behavior “the part of parenting I hate most, which is saying something, giving that parenting is a job that also requires cleaning diarrhea out of neck folds.”

For new parents, “Act Natural” functions as the best advice books do: It reassures you that you’re doing it OK. Or at least that a whole lot of other people have done a whole lot worse.

RACHEL HUTTON

 

Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells
By Pico Iyer. (Knopf, 231 pages, $25.95.)

Thirty years ago, travel writer Pico Iyer went to Japan seeking a life of solitude, a copy of Thoreau in his suitcase. “I went to Japan to learn how to live with less hurry and fear of time,” he writes, “Walden”-style. To live simply and alone.

What he found was an endlessly fascinating culture perpetually at the crossroads of ancient and now. He also found a wife, and he ended up moving to Japan permanently, splitting his year between California and the sleepy Japanese town of Nara, where “I take my watch off the minute I arrive.”

“Autumn Light” is Iyer’s late-life accounting of what’s been learned from this experiment of a lifetime, and autumn is an apt metaphor. The universal season of transition and mortality is a truly spectacular experience in Japan, and the book is a sensory feast alive with blaze-red maples, “yuzu-colored” light, haunting temple bells, smoke from fires lighting the paths of the spirit world and the firefly-like winking of lantern-lit graveyards.

His insights, shared via broad journal-like observations about the Japanese, or through more personal stories of love and loss, center on the wisdom and grace — and difficulty — of accepting the reality of impermanence: “Dying is the art we have to master … not death.”

It’s likely no coincidence that this book hits the shelves in spring, when all is born again. The potent, passing beauty of autumn in Japan sends a clear message to embrace each new day as there is no time to waste. The leaves “teach us how to die,” Iyer says, quoting the master, Thoreau, from his deathbed as he prepared what would be his last lecture, “Autumn Tints.”

MICHIELA THUMAN