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Short Takes

‘Gypsy Boy,’ ‘Bringing up Bebé,’ ‘Gil Reading’

Boston Globe

GYPSY BOY: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies

By Mikey Walsh

St. Martin”s, 278 pp., $24.99

Born into a family known for its champion bare-knuckled boxers, Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym) was taking punches from his dad by the time most kids were in preschool. In this violent yet often comic memoir, Walsh writes of life as an English Gypsy (although considered offensive in some circles, this is the term he uses, as well as Romany Gypsies, to distinguish his people from the Irish Travelers, whose similarly nomadic lifestyle means they often share trailer parks and bloody feuds).

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A sensitive, sweet boy, Walsh suffered through boxing lessons and wished he could spend more time at school, despite having to endure catcalls from non-Gypsy kids. Keenly aware of the prejudice against his people, whom he says “have rarely been liked or tolerated anywhere,’’ Walsh is both proud of his heritage and burdened by it. “A childhood for any Gypsy was very short indeed,’’ he laments; in his case, that meant leaving school after age 12 to work for his abusive father, while his sister, in accordance with tradition, began searching for a husband at 14.

The slow realization that he’s gay added urgency to Walsh’s decision to leave his family and seek a new kind of life. This part of the book is its least interesting, though, perhaps because dysfunction makes for such good reading, as do the glimpses of a mostly hidden culture: the women cleaning their trailers in full makeup and jewels (and Jimmy Choos!), the cockfighting and bonfires, the ever-present disdain for the non-Gypsies they call Gorgias. Pseudonymous memoirs can reek of fraudulence, but “Gypsy Boy’’ feels, in all its cocky, awkward affection and anguish, like the real deal.

BRINGING UP BÉBÉ: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

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By Pamela Druckerman

Penguin, 284 pp., $25.95

American expatriate Pamela Druckerman noticed while dining on vacation with her husband and young daughter that the French families at the restaurant weren’t enduring whining, screaming, or food-throwing. Instead, there “seems to be an invisible, civilizing force at their tables.’’ A former foreign correspondent for American newspapers and now living in Paris, Druckerman aimed her journalism skills at the question of why French children and their parents seem so much calmer and happier than their American counterparts. What she finds goes beyond feeding, napping, and educational differences. French parents draw on an entire philosophy of life, beginning in babyhood, that emphasizes firm boundaries (the “cadre,’’ or framework, that parents and teachers try to create in their children’s lives) yet with a great degree of freedom and autonomy within those limits. By contrast, American parents often feel they must choose sides in a Darwinian battle among parenting styles, anxious to propel their children into some predetermined idea of success, along the way often having a fairly miserable time. As Druckerman puts it, “The clutch of mutual dependency and worry that often seems to bind American parents to their kids feels inevitable at times, but it never feels good.’’

A charming blend of social investigation and memoir, Druckerman’s reportage is often candid, as when her toddler wreaks havoc on a sweater display, prompting the French sales clerk to observe, “I’ve never seen a child do that before.’’ Her dry observations of monstrous American children can sting (one anecdote ends, “[t]he gifted child has bitten me’’). At times, American readers might get their backs up - it’s hard not to feel defensive and inadequate while ogling the fish-and-vegetable-rich menu served at the local preschool - but Druckerman’s mission isn’t to shame stateside moms, rather to introduce some alternative ideas. A way to raise children that respects them and also parental time, space, and energy? Oui, s’il vous plait.

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GIRL READING

By Katie Ward

Scribner, 341 pp., $26

In paintings of the annunciation, the Virgin Mary is often depicted reading. What she is reading is not normally made clear, but typically scholars suggest that the book is a holy one, serving as a symbol of Mary’s spiritual obedience. In the first of seven stories in Katie Ward’s “Girl Reading,’’ an aging painter in 14th-century Siena poses his model, an orphan, with a book of hours, open to the penitential psalm “De Profundis,’’ which speaks of guilt, suffering, and anguish - all of which Laura Agnelli, the orphan, is feeling. The conversation that unspools between painter and model is dazzling in its intelligence and simplicity.

“Girl Reading’’ bills itself as a novel, though its stories are not linked by character or plot or time or place. Instead, they relate to one another thematically, or even visually, each springing from an image containing a girl or woman and a book. Arranged chronologically from 1333 to 2060, they attain a novel’s rhythm and scope in the end, almost magically. In the best of the tales - those set in Siena, Amsterdam, and an English country house during World War I - Ward’s sinuous language wraps around serious ideas concerning sex and love, freedom and power. Less successful sections are too talky and clever - a constant hazard for a writer as smart and ambitious as Ward. Still, throughout these stories’ deceptively straightforward prose and pleasant surfaces, there’s something here that reminds one of Katherine Mansfield’s short fiction. It’s exciting to imagine what she’ll write next.

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Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.