NeuroTribes Book Review

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity

I usually write book reviews in batches in my What Are You Reading? series, but I am dedicating a single blog post to NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman.

In the lead up to the book release, Silberman’s book was getting a lot of buzz in the press. It was featured or reviewed in The Atlantic, on NPR, the New York Times, The Guardian, Wired of course, he was interviewed for Forbes, did this great interview for Vox, I could go on but you get the picture. I read many of the articles and was so excited to read the book that I pre-ordered it, even though I am usually the kind of person who just waits for the public library to get it. The promise that he seemed to be making, that he had set out to dispel the common mythology of autism and present a more true and accurate picture of what autism is and who autistic people are, had me on pins and needles.

The background to the writing of this book is that Silberman himself is not autistic, but has been a writer for Wired magazine for years. In the 1990s he wrote a piece called The Geek Syndrome, which proved to be quite popular, about the apparent “epidemic” of autism in places like Silicon Valley. Warning if you want to go back and read that, it’s full of ableist language that made me cringe so hard I couldn’t get through it – it’s clear that Silberman’s come a long way in his view of autism since then. When he was researching that piece, he became curious about why there were so many autistic people in the tech community, and his research into that larger question eventually became Neurotribes.

The strength of this book is in clarifying the true history of autism research and “treatment” protocols (I put treatment in scare quotes because autism is not a disease therefore cannot actually be treated; nevertheless, plenty of people have tried). By far the strongest chapters were the ones on Asperger, Kanner, and Lovaas.

But let me explain, for those not familiar with those names. The popular mythology among non-autistics in the autism community (parents, professionals, doctors) is that in the 1930s there were two Viennese doctors, one in America (Kanner) and one in Austria (Asperger) who “discovered autism” at the same time. It’s been believed that Kanner found a group of children who were profoundly disabled, non verbal or nearly so, and so these children and others like them from then on were said to have “Kanner’s syndrome” which soon was called “classic autism.” Meanwhile, Asperger found a group of highly verbal, professorial and quirky children who didn’t relate well to peers but were quite clever. This type was supposedly lost for a few decades and eventually surfaced as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” sometimes called “high functioning autism.”

One of the reasons this narrative has been so compelling is that it has allowed many people to argue that children with “classic autism” should be cured or treated to help them become more “normal,” while children with “Asperger’s syndrome” are mostly just quirky and smart. Many people who push back against the neurodiversity movement have asserted that in fact we should probably just split these up into two completely diagnoses and not call them both autism.

Such arguments are the reason why Silberman’s new historical record of the history of autism research is so important to how we view autism today.

In NeuroTribes, Silberman reveals that Asperger in fact describes a whole range of abilities and disabilities in the children and teenagers that he saw in his clinic. He correctly perceived that these abilities and disabilities were intertwined, essential to the person, and lasted throughout their lives to varying degrees. He believed autism was “not rare,” once you knew what to look for. He also identified autistic traits in the parents of his patients, though curiously he believed he never met any autistic girls and surmised that perhaps female autism was something that set in during adolescence, since he believed he had met some autistic mothers.

(It is posited that this could be because his clinic/school was a place that children were sent after having behavioral problems in typical schools, a problem that autistic girls have somewhat less often than boys; I’d guess it’s because autism in girls is poorly understood in general.)

One of the most fascinating details of this history is that in 1938 when Asperger gave his first and last public talk at University on his research into autistic children, the environment in Vienna at the time was one in which there was tremendous pressure to fall into step with the Nazi regime. For psychologists like Asperger and his staff, that meant participating in the genocide of disabled children, a program that this book went into in heartbreaking detail. By the end of this chapter I was weeping as I read.

Because of that dangerous atmosphere in 1930s Austria, Silberman asserts that Asperger put a spin on his research in order to emphasize the gifts and societal contributions that certain of his patients had to offer, outlining the case studies of four highly intelligent and scientifically gifted boys who had some minor social difficulties. Because Asperger had elsewhere written of the vast “continuum” of autistic traits, it is reasonable to assume that he was quite deliberate in “pitching” the strengths of a few in his clinic to save all of the children in his care.

After that talk, Asperger’s research was subsumed by World War 2 and tainted by a perceived association with Nazi eugenics, buried for decades. When it finally resurfaced in the early 1990s, his portrait of autism had become skewed to resemble what we now call “Asperger’s syndrome.”

What was happening in the US at the time was that Kanner, another Viennese psychologist who had come to America earlier, was also doing research on autistic children. Kanner had trained to be a general practice doctor and found a convenient back door entry into psychology (basically a clinic said “we need a psychologist, you’re hired”) that gave him a case of Imposter Syndrome. Silberman argues that Kanner was thus driven to establish himself as a person of importance in the field, and that is why he established criteria for autism that was narrow and specific enough to ensure that it would be considered a condition both rare and severe.

The crucial missing link that Silberman discovered was that Kanner hired as part of his clinical staff two former staffers from Asperger’s clinic – most notably, Georg Frankl, Asperger’s chief diagnostician. Despite this connection, Kanner never mentioned Asperger’s work in his papers, claiming the credit for discovering autism himself, and Frankl and Weiss apparently never spoke up either (Silberman implies that they may have kept silent because they owed Kanner their lives after he helped them escape Austria and obtain work visas in the US).

Kanner went on to establish autism as a specific diagnosis for children he believed should be institutionalized throughout their lives, in part because he blamed their parents, particularly “refrigerator mothers,” for what he saw as a severe mental illness in young children. Oddly enough, though he characterized this disease as “infantile autism,” he did not theorize, research, or even seem to wonder what happened as the children grew up – I suppose because they were institutionalized and forgotten by society. In my view, this left a conceptual vacuum in which later generations of parents could insert all manner of theories about toxins, causes, and quackery about cures and treatments that would “recover” their children from this “disease.”

Other key chapters of the book detail the history of how parent groups came to dominate the field of autism research and public awareness, much to the detriment of autistic children in most cases. Bernie Rimland was a big figure in that particular history as an early proponent of toxicity theories, biomed treatments, and what is known in the autistic community as “curebie” talk. Though his son grew up to be a happy, healthy autistic man with a full life, Bernie Rimland to his dying day expressed that he wished above all for his son to just “be normal.”

The chapter on the history of ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis, still the most popular therapy for autistic children) was also heart wrenching as Silberman laid out the work of its founder, Ivar Lovaas. Lovaas believed that autistic children literally were not people – that they were essentially human bodies without humanity. His work focused on shaping their behaviors in order to make them appear more like typical children, which he argued was the only way they could learn anything at all, often using harsh punishments such as electric shocks. His work is associated with the equally horrifying work of George Rekers, who used Lovaas’s techniques to try to cure young boys of “sissy boy syndrome.”

And of course, there are the crucial points in time when the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) expand their definitions of autism in the 80s, and then add Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS in the 90s (only to remove them in 2014), which, coupled with better educational standards and services, gives rise to the supposed, mythological, totally nonexistent “autism epidemic” of modern times.

These are the dark annals of autism history that autistic people usually know, while many parents and professionals do not or choose not to think about. So I was appreciative of Silberman bringing them to the light of day, and to a wide audience.

The rest of the book was rather weak.

That may be overly harsh, but when it came to actually showing his readership who autistic people are, how we experience the world, and what we need from society, the work just wasn’t there, which felt joltingly anticlimactic after the incredible detail of his research on Asperger, Kanner, and Lovaas.

I was baffled by the fact that there were entire chapters on ham radio operators and the making of Rain Man (NOT even based on an autistic person, gah!!), and almost nothing on autistic girls or women. Just as Silberman went through the history books to find famous male autistics like Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac, couldn’t he have dug through and found even one autistic woman? I know that there were female ham radio operators and science fiction geeks in the 1960s, but none are mentioned. The only female autistic to get any play is of course Temple Grandin, whom frankly most autistic women are pretty tired of, because she is always the token Lady Autistic when in fact most of us don’t relate to her that much at all. I could name a number of more interesting and relatable and important autistic people who are NOT men off the top of my head, from Donna Williams (mentioned, but only briefly), to Cynthia Kim, to Lydia Brown (mentioned but that’s it), to Amy Sequenzia (how is she not in this book?), Ibby Grace, and more.

Also frustrating for me was that Silberman focused so much on tech, science, and math geeks in his autistic profiles. Newsflash, not all autistic people are into STEM. I do find those people interesting, sure, but autistic people are also writers, artists, social activists, teachers, therapists, parents, and many other things. I know Silberman is a tech writer and that’s his thing, but it’s misleading to focus on that one wedge of autistic interests to the exclusion of all others.

Furthermore, I was greatly disappointed in how he emphasized the autistic people who are geniuses, inventors, and people who change the world. Even when he profiled people who were pronounced “low functioning” as children, he chose to highlight the individuals who went on to demonstrate genius IQs or special abilities. The fact is, many other autistic people live ordinary lives, and many need a lot of lifelong support.

I was so disillusioned to realize that Silberman was never going to get around to pointing out that it is NOT the material achievements a person is capable of that make them worthwhile as people. This trope that autistic children are worthy of love because they have the potential to be brilliant engineers is so harmful. It leaves the door open for non-autistic adults to try to “recover” them and make them “more normal” while they are young, and it leaves disabled teens and adults who AREN’T brilliant scientists (and let’s face it, most people don’t turn out to be brilliant scientists) out in the cold without a place in society.

That is not autistic acceptance. In this way NeuroTribes fell far, far short of what I was hoping for.

I was left with the strange suspicion that Silberman was in fact reenacting a version of Asperger’s 1938 University of Vienna talk in which he emphasized the gifted autistics to an audience of genocidal eugenicists. Did he consciously, or maybe unconsciously, pitch us a package of autistic geniuses because his main audience is so antagonistic toward autism that he felt this was the only way to reach them? This might be the case, but in the end, for me, it’s not good enough.

Even so, and this may sound inconsistent, I would still highly recommend the book to everyone, absolutely everyone. The history here needs to be common knowledge. And when you are done with NeuroTribes, I suggest you visit Autonomous Press, where autistic people are publishing the work of autistic authors, to round out your reading.

What Are You Reading? A Little of This, A Little of That

Books

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last did a book post – apparently my last one was in February, so now I’m playing catch-up.

(This post contains affiliate links: book titles are linked to my Amazon Affiliate ID.)

papertowns

* This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. A series of short stories centered around the life of Yunior, a Dominican American young man living in Jersey – a womanizer, a cheat, a lover and a fighter, an asshole with a tender core. I found it irresistible the way Diaz played with my sympathy and my revulsion for Yunior, as he loved and lost and lost and lost. The juxtaposition of his depth and insight and loneliness with his shallowness and frequent contempt for women felt honest and real. Of course now I have to go find and read the rest of his work, including the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

* A Girl Is a Half-formed Thingby Eimear McBride. A very strange book whose stream of consciousness narration begins in the womb, with a fragmented and grammatically chaotic writing style, following the thoughts of a girl through her terrifying childhood, and through her tumultuous and heartbreaking adolescence. I was not surprised to read that the book was inspired by a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I haven’t actually read myself but I’m familiar with its style. A lot of people find A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing completely unreadable, and I understand why, though I was compelled to see it through and in the end I did find its story to be haunting and provocative. But I am still pretty baffled by the style of it – MY thoughts aren’t that disjointed and chaotic even at the worst of times, so I am not sure why this was the way to tell this tale, except maybe to distance us a bit from the horror and pain of it. Does that sound like a recommendation? I think few people would enjoy this one, but give it a try if you’re looking for something wildly experimental.

* Paper Townsby John Green. This YA novel is very John Green, so if you like John Green, you’ll like Paper Towns. What I enjoy about Green’s books is how well he captures that particular way that adolescence beautifully straddles self-centered, banal fixations and worries, and the biggest deepest questions about humanity and the meaning of life. I agree with the criticism some have made that all of his male narrators are kind of the same, but I’m not too bothered by that as I see the character as a teenage everyman and that works for me. In relation to his other books – THIS MIGHT BE MILDLY SPOILERY – I liked that Paper Towns did not employ the use of a dramatic tragedy to make its point; it was a little anticlimactic but still satisfying.

*Mud Seasonby Ellen Stimson. A memoir about city-slickers from St. Louis who move to small town Vermont and make themselves over as country folks, with mostly disastrous results. Stimson has a folksy sense of humor that sometimes made my teeth hurt, but she dropped enough F bombs into her tale to keep me going. Though she was self-deprecating and played her many failures for laughs, I couldn’t help cringing at how much she and her family behaved like bulls in a china shop in their new hometown – disrupting their peace with their fancy home renovations, buying the general store and running it into the ground (!!!), taking in farm animals with no clue how to care for them, and all the while looking down her nose at the locals. As a girl raised in a small tourist town myself, I often wanted to shake her silly. But I think it’s a fun read for New Englanders and others who can relate in one way or another.

* The Perks of Being a Wallflowerby Stephen Chbosky. This is an older YA novel, published in 1999 by MTV Books (?! who knew) and later made into a movie, which I haven’t seen but now would like to. I have to say I was deeply confused by this book and did not know what I was meant to make of Charlie, the teenaged narrator. He’s not just a wallflower, he’s extremely quirky at the very least – at times astoundingly immature and clueless, at other times implausibly insightful and mature. I could not decide whether Chbosky was writing a wildly out of tune version of what an adult thinks a high school freshman is like, or perhaps a dead on first person view as an autistic teenager??, though autism was never once mentioned. Near the end, an intimate conversation between Sam and Charlie nearly redeemed the entire book for me. I might have to reread sometime.

What Are You Reading? Offbeat Memoirs Edition

Books

Sometimes themes crop up in my reading list without being consciously planted there – I suppose I get on a jag of being into a thing for a while and sometimes don’t even realize I’m doing it. This bunch of book reviews are creative nonfiction works I read in the last couple of months (there were some novels too, but I’ll save those for another post), all a little different from your straight up memoir. I am sure that these found their way to me because I have been thinking a lot about how I would write my own memoir or autobiographical… something.

(This post contains affiliate links, which is to say, if you want to buy any of these books, click over to Amazon and I’ll get a few cents or whatever.)

* Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)by Jacqueline Woodson. A memoir written in free verse poetry about growing up African American in South Carolina and New York City in the 60s and 70s; somehow I missed that this was a book of poems when I was reading about it. I tend to read fast and it was uncomfortable at first for me to slow down enough to appreciate the free verse form and the lyricism of Woodson’s writing, but like a long and beautiful ballad it slowly moved me. This is a masterful interweaving of the personal and the cultural, stories across generations and geography; even if you never read poetry (as I never do), you should give it a try.

* The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Storiesby Marina Keegan. The story behind this book is that Marina Keegan was a Yale college student who wrote for the Yale Daily News, had a job lined up at the New Yorker, and graduated Yale magna cum laude. Five days later she died in a car accident. The titular essay was written for the Yale paper and ironically speaks of how Keegan is ready to begin the adventure of rest of her life. I was worried that the circumstances of her death and almost too exquisite poignancy of her final essay would spoil my appreciation for her work, specifically that I would find it was only published because of the tragedy. But there’s no doubt that her talent shines through the backstory here – the mix of creative non fiction and fiction in this collection is vibrantly alive, pulsing with the intense feeling of late adolescence in a way that is beguiling and wistfully nostalgic (for an old fart like me).

* Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Lifeby Cynthia Kim. I have enjoyed Kim’s blog Musings of an Aspie for a few months now, so I picked up this memoir of her life as an autistic person who went undiagnosed until she was 42 years old – and, as it says on the tin, this is also something of an instruction manual for people seeking to understand autism better. Though it is undoubtedly useful as a “user manual,” I think it’s also an excellent resource for non-autistic people to learn about and better understand the autistic experience. With somewhere around 2% of the general population being autistic, that’s probably useful information for just about anybody – you could have an autistic family member, friend, or coworker and not even realize it. Kim has a way of explaining autism with clarity and simplicity without grossly oversimplifying things that I think is quite well done.

* Blanketsby Craig Thompson. I don’t even know where to begin with Blankets. If I could translate incoherent fangirl squealing into text, that is what I would put down as my book review. This is a graphic memoir, hundreds of pages thick but since it is image heavy it’s a quick read, about a boy who grows up in an emotionally barren family, falls in love at church camp with another lonely and romantic teenager, loses his religion, and – well, there’s no way to sum up the story that does any justice to the delicate beauty of this book. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful and I almost couldn’t stand it because I loved it so much I wished I’d written it.

* Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professorby Lynda Barry. Not exactly a memoir but certainly offbeat, this is a kind of published diary from a college professor who teaches creativity classes. Printed in the form of an embellished Composition Notebook (which her students use for their own journals), it includes her own doodles, some drawings from her students, copies of the various exercises and assigned readings, and is a kind of weird, semi-private musing slash course in how to draw and how to think and how to observe and remember. In a nice bit of serendipity in my life, she specifically recommends one of the short stories in…

* The Boys of My Youthby Jo Ann Beard. Yes, Lynda Barry recommended “The Fourth State of Matter” from this Beard book of stories that I was actually reading at the same time. Highly recommended (and also lent to me) by my friend KristineThe Boys of My Youth is series of short creative non fiction pieces. Her writing is a bit hard to describe, but there is a review blurb on the back that says something like ‘now when people ask what creative non fiction is, I can show them this book,’ which I think is the perfect description! Like the poetry form of Woodson’s novel, Beard’s work grew on me slowly until eventually it took me over. Carefully crafted, often languorous and almost dreamlike, somehow she conveys the immediacy of experience, the richness of emotion, and the fog of memory all at once.

Media Brownout?

Books, Identity

I’m reading a classic book about unlocking your creativity – it’s called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The format is a 12 week long course with some reading from the book and a number of exercises that are supposed to help you “unblock” your artistic ability. Since starting the course, I have been writing three longhand pages of free writing each morning, taking myself on one “artist date” a week (if I can manage it) (the “date” just means going out ALONE and treating myself to a nice time), and doing many of the thinking/writing exercises.

For week four, Julia has asked me to take a break from consuming media. Her book predates the Internet, so she doesn’t mention it, but I think it’s safe to say she would include that in her prescription, in addition to taking a week off from watching TV, and also…

Reading.

She knows that the break from reading is shocking. She claims that blocked artists tend to be addicted to reading because it helps them stuff down their own creativity. I don’t know about that. If that’s true, I’ve been a blocked artist since I learned to read. I LOVE reading. I love books. Reading is like breathing to me. I MIGHT DIE.

Also, I’m kind of resentful slash dubious about the idea of a media break for myself, because without Internet, TV, or books, what kind of downtime am I going to get? That’s pretty much all I’ve got going on as far as relaxation and me time. Julia thinks that if we aren’t reading and watching the tubes we’re finally going to get to all those hobbies we’ve been meaning to try. Uhhhh, look, Julia. I am not running out to taking surfing lessons any time soon.

I’m a little unsure about the whole Artist’s Way endeavor, really, because I’m not so convinced that I AM a blocked artist. I feel pretty in touch with my creativity. What is preventing me from creating more than I do is a little thing called parenting. And I’m not about to give that up.

Still, I’m trying out the course, albeit slightly tailored to the demands of my current lifestyle. I have to admit that I have noticed an eerie synchronicity between some of the stages she talks about and things that are actually happening to me. The emotional phases, the vivid dreams, etc.

media

My weeks for the course run from Tuesday to Tuesday, so I started yesterday. Here are the terms of my brownout, tentatively so far. I put a question mark in my post title because I am not at all certain I’m going to stick with this for a week. Also, sad but true: if I can’t read OR watch TV on my phone, I really have no idea how I’m going to fall asleep. I haven’t done that probably since I was a toddler.

Facebook. I’m off my personal Facebook feed for the week. I can still get messages to my Messenger app, and I have the Pages app to monitor the Pages for my blogs and other projects (uhhh I have a few!). I’m permitting myself to scan my notifications just to make sure I am not tagged in anything urgent – but no responding unless it’s truly urgent!

Twitter. I’m tweeting here and there and responding to tweets (again, I count this as necessary blogger presence). I’m not reading my feed. I don’t look at Twitter all that much anyway so it’s no big sacrifice.

Blogs. I am writing blog posts (obviously), since I think that can be counted as creative work! I am going to take the week off reading blogs. I feel a little guilty about it, seems selfish of me to ask people to read mine when I’m not reading theirs, but I’ll catch up at week’s end.

Instagram. I haven’t been using Instagram that much and I don’t spend much time on it when I do, so I’m keeping it on my okay list. If only to record the events of the week.

Pinterest. I use Pinterest so seldom that I almost forgot to put it in the list. Meh.

TV. I am giving myself a husband loophole here. We usually watch ONE show together after the kids are asleep. I know there are other things we could do, but we are usually pretty fried by 10 pm. If we don’t watch any shows all week, what’s going to happen is he is going to surf social media while I stare at the walls, or… take up knitting in silence? Maybe I could sit and write. Hm. That might work.

Music. Julia does not forbid music, which gets the side eye from me, because what if I were a blocked musician? I’m not, though, so music stays.

Books. I… guess I will try this. I’m not happy about it. I might quit. I’m mostly just curious to see if I can do it and if I will magically start writing a novel if I don’t have any stories coming in to my brain for a week. It might even be good timing since I am not currently reading any library books, BUT I just had a hold come in on a book I’ve been waiting for for months. I might be able to read it in a week after my brownout is over. I won’t give up reading to the kids.

This post contains affiliate links.

What Are You Reading?

Books

This batch of reviews is a weird mix of YA fiction and spiritual nonfiction. Guess that’s where I’m at right now! Adding a note at the top to tell you that if you really want to delve into a delicious smorgasbord of book reviews, my friend Kristine is doing her annual 12 Days of Christmas review at The Suburban Prairie, and this year she’s individually reviewing ALL of the books she read in 2014! Loving it!

* Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy Book 1) by Sarah Rees Brennan. This was the last pick for the Curtain and Pen online book club – a supernatural-themed YA novel, first in a trilogy. Set in a small town in England called Sorry-in-the-Vale, the story follows a high school girl named Kami as she sets about unraveling the mysteries of her home town, the strange Lynburn family who seem to hold some inexplicable power over the residents, and her own paranormal connection to a boy named Jared. The characters in this were maybe a little cartoonish, but felt original and appealing. Brennan did a great job of maintaining suspense about various plot lines while still creating twists that seemed logical. I found the relationship between Kami and Jared to be the most interesting storyline and the cliffhanger absolutely shocked me. I have the next book lined up in my reading queue. Also, Brennan was interacting with us on Twitter during our book club discussion – she is an active and friendly tweeter!

* Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life by Karen Maezen Miller. I love Karen Maezen Miller for the way she shows readers that ordinary life not only can be, but is, a spiritual practice. Her book about motherhood, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, is one of my favorite books ever and one of the few books I have read more than once. In this one she writes more about her personal life, her path toward Buddhism, the messy years when she was lost and lonely and what she learned along the way. Miller has a lovely, relatable way of explaining that we are all messy and lost and lonely and that’s all right. We are right where we are supposed to be. This is not a set of steps to follow to attain enlightenment – if only it were so simple, as the title playfully teases. There were many times during the book when I thought, okay, I think I’ve got it, do I need to keep reading? but then I would and be surprised once again by another simple and beautiful truth. Highly recommend.

* Raging Star (Dust Lands) by Moira Young. I can’t seem to stop reading YA trilogies, even though they always seem to disappoint in the end. I still really like the central character of Saba, because she is believably flawed, selfish, romantic, a risk taker, a little confused. The trouble is, this last book also felt confused to me. A lot of threads were left dangling in the emotional storyline, though the plot was tied up pretty neatly. Some of the characters did things that just didn’t make a lot of sense to me – DeMalo and Jack both seemed rather baffling in this installment – and others who intrigued me never really went anywhere – like Auriel Tai and Emmi. I am not sure whether to recommend this series or not; I still think the first book was great, and so after you read that you might as well read the rest, but prepare to end on a huh?

* Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich. This book KNOCKED MY SOCKS OFF. I actually feel like writing the entire review in caps lock. I have loved Ehrenreich for years – ever since her 2002 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she investigated and wrote about the lives of the working poor by living and working alongside them – and I’ve read everything she’s written. So when I heard that her new book was a personal memoir about her adolescence, atheism, and grappling with the meaning of life, I was practically salivating to get my hands on it. I almost could not make it through this book because after every page I wanted to throw it down and scream with excitement; you see, I could relate so closely to her teenage ponderings it was rocking my world to realize that there was someone out there who was as strange as me at age 15. When I was finally done I went back to my old journals, some of which I’ve kept in digital form, and found several things that were similar to what Ehrenreich had described (though certainly she was a far better and more intelligent writer). I will say, though, that even though I ADORE this book, it’s a weird one and I can see why many people will just find it too odd to love.

What Are You Reading? YA Edition

Books

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. Best known for his Lemony Snicket children’s books, Handler here is writing as a female first person narrator for a YA audience. The device, or perhaps gimmick, of the tale is that Min is sorting through a box of mementos from her relationship with ex-boyfriend Ed, while composing a letter to him about, of course, why they broke up. Each item begins a new chapter that triggers a memory, and each of these chapter begins with a painting of said item. I actually found these illustrations to be the weakest part of the book and I frequently wished they weren’t there – which maybe is a case of me being too “trained” in illustration, because I was taught that an illustration should always add something to the text and not simply depict what’s written in a literal way. I kept looking for them to add some other clue or layer of meaning to the story, but they were just pictures of objects and by the end I felt they kind of cheapened the writing. My other complaint was that I sometimes found the dialogue a bit too witty to be believed. But what won me over is that this story painted a wonderfully, awkwardly, painfully accurate picture of what being a teenager is like in matters of love. All the misunderstandings, casual hurts, and intoxicating hopefulness of teen love were there, and that’s why I liked this book.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young. An adventure story set in a post-apocalyptic future, this is the first book in a trilogy about a gritty teenage heroine named Saba. The setting is a kind of sci-fi tinged wild west, and the book is written in a twangy dialect that took me some time to get used to – in fact, for a while I wasn’t sure I was going to. But as the action picked up, the dialect writing faded to where I could just hear it as Saba’s voice. With a futuristic dystopian backdrop and a bow and arrow slinging heroine, it’s obvious why this might be compared with Hunger Games, but I found its world to be more intriguingly complex, its storyline more epic, its love story sexier and more appealing. Though it started off slow for me, as soon as I finished reading the last sentence of Blood Red Road I jumped on my public library app and reserved the sequel.

Sekret by Lindsay Smith. This book came highly recommended by my friend Christina of Allodoxophobia and the premise drew me right in: Sekret takes place in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and involves a group of teenage psychics being trained by the KGB as spies. I have to point out that this novel is a perfect example of why the YA genre really should be taken seriously by adult readers – far from being a churned out slew of Twilight copycats, it’s full of inventive and original storytelling. I did have a hard time with the long descriptive passages in the book, but I’m not sure if I was just not in the right frame of mind to focus on them, or if the setting of Soviet Russia was just too foreign to envision. But overall I thought the concept, story, and characters were compelling and unique, and this was a thriller that kept me guessing at every turn.

Rebel Heart by Moira Young. In the second book of Young’s Dust Lands trilogy, the dialect writing was instantly invisible to me, which was nice. It hard to review book two without spoiling book one – well, without spoilers in general, I guess – but it seems to me that the middle work of a trilogy either is a total knockout that takes advantage of its relative freedom (it doesn’t have to set things up nor wrap them up) to be bold and creative (see Star Wars) or it’s a kind of plodding bridge trying to get from point A to point B (see Catching Fire). This, unfortunately, seemed like the latter. There were some good new characters and a KERRR-AAAAZY plot twist (!!!! that better go somewhere good!) but over all it fell a little flat for me.

What Are You Reading?

Books

I’ve read so many great books since I last wrote a book review post that I’m going to have to break them into two posts – so stay tuned for an upcoming YA Edition. Lately I’ve just been swimming in lists of books I want to read and also stacks of library books all over the house, both non fiction and fiction.

How Children Learn by John Holt. I wish I had read this book long ago – in fact I think it would be much more useful for all expectant parents to read this than to read pregnancy guides and infant care manuals! Although John Holt is known as a pioneer of the unschooling movement, you don’t have to be interested in unschooling or homeschooling at all to enjoy and reap the benefits of this particular work (some of his others are more pointedly anti-school). It is based on his extensive observations of young children (as a 5th grade teacher and as a friend) and engagingly outlines his view that young children learn as naturally as they breathe and as joyfully as they play. The chapters on talking and reading were particularly delightful; the only area where I would quarrel with him is on his view of fantasy play. He asserts that children’s natural fantasies are about being adults, and they only play at princesses and superheroes because they are targeted by adult television and movie creators. This to me seemed more like a side effect of cultural beliefs about the evils of TV and not a genuine observation – after all, storytelling is as old as human language. Before there was TV there were books, and before that raconteurs. I wonder if he would change his view if he were alive today (he died in 1985).

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. In this novel about a successful comedy writer and her troubled marriage, there is a contrived narrative device that fuels the story, but Rowell’s writing is charming and honest enough to pull it off. She paints a picture of a relationship that feels real and relatable. One of most interesting things about the book for me was how I was not entirely sure who to root for, so to speak, as the story unfolded. This is Rowell’s strength – the way she balances writing characters who are truly flawed and sometimes annoy you, infuriate you, or do bad things, and yet she gets you to care about them enough to forgive and maybe even love them. Though her stories are simple and straightforward, her characters stay with you forever because they feel like real people whom you actually once knew. The only Rowell novel left for me to read is Attachments, and I look forward to it.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. The story of Louisa Clark, a cafe waitress turned caregiver for a quadriplegic man, and Will Traynor, the man in her care who once was a hotshot corporate exec and thrill seeker and now lives confined to a motorized wheelchair. I would have been wary of this novel based merely on the description – wouldn’t it be sentimental and icky? – but I picked it up because all of my Goodreads friends gave it rave reviews. Indeed this turned out to be a book that I could hardly put down once I picked it up. I had the distinct feeling that Moyes probably researched this book by immersing herself in quad support groups online (I suspected the scenes of Lou’s own online research included a head nod or two to actual people Moyes had chatted with). She treats the subject of Will’s disability with raw honesty, and I felt the ending was deeply satisfying.

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell. It’s rare for me to not finish a book, but I only made it halfway through this one. Woodrell is perhaps best known for his novel Winter’s Bone, which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – however, I doubt I’ll get to reading that any time soon. I found his writing style to be so off putting that, even though I enjoyed the characters and was intrigued by the plot (who burned down the dance hall and killed and maimed dozens of people?), I could not plow all the way through the story. There is a bit of an emperor-has-no-clothes feeling for me when I see how highly rated this book is on Goodreads, like am I just not smart enough to like it? I balked against his frequent use of passive voice, long winding sentences, and use of commas seemingly more to break up run on sentences into chunks than to give them actual grammatical structure. But I suppose it’s just a style preference. There is a rhythm to his writing, almost poetic, that to me obscures the narrative completely but to other may be enjoyable.

What Are You Reading? YA Edition

Books

OCD

I’ve been reading a lot of YA novels lately as part of my research for writing my own YA novel (which I’ve actually started! About 1,000 words so far). I think we have JK Rowling to thank for giving children’s and YA literature a measure of respectability as adult reading fare (I believe that we never would have had the Hunger Games phenomenon without Harry Potty – agree/disagree?). Right now there is a lot of good stuff being published in the YA genre. This label does not mean the book is easy or lightweight, but simply that it is has an adolescent main character driving the story. Here are some YA novels I’ve read lately.

* City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare. The sixth and final book in the Mortal Instruments series felt more like homework than pleasure reading. The MI series follows main character Clary, who is a Shadowhunter – a race of humans descended from angels who defend the world from demons – and her love interest Jace. Other characters include vampires, werewolves, and fairies, but this is more of an adventure series than a Twilight-esque romance. It started out pretty entertaining but by this final book the plot felt really tortured and the love affair between Clary and Jace was stale. Clare injected a whole new set of characters that was obviously a segue into a new Shadowhunter series, but it felt forced and it annoyed me that she was trying to hook me into her next book. I’ll pass.

* Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour. This was a novel I picked up rather haphazardly in the library YA section and I didn’t expect much from it. At the outset, the LA setting and movie-biz characters didn’t appeal, but the narrator quickly grew on me. Emi is a high school girl who reads more like a college kid (maybe she should have been? does YA include college kids?), a film studio intern, and she’s coming off of an unhealthy on-again off-again relationship with an older woman when she falls in love with a mysterious girl from a broken home who just happens to be the long lost granddaughter of a Hollywood star (Clint Eastwood thinly disguised I think). Okay, this sounds terrible when I describe it. But it was pretty sweet and charming.

* OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu. Haydu’s new book Life By Committee was highly recommended by my blogger friend Christina, but since my library doesn’t have that one yet, I tried this earlier novel by the author. And. Wow. OCD Love Story is intense. It’s narrated in the first person by a teenaged girl named Bea and as I read I felt I was inside her tortured mind as she spirals downward. As the book begins she has fairly recently developed symptoms of OCD and throughout the story her obsessions and compulsions escalate until they have completely overtaken her life. Meanwhile, the love story aspect involves a boy in her therapy group who is also struggling with OCD. I think this would be a difficult read for someone who is dealing with real life anxiety disorder, but it was incredibly well written and gripping. Recommended IF you are up for riding along on a teenaged girl’s journey through mental illness.

* Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by David Yoo. Here is where I confess to you that I have a bias against male authors. I know it’s terrible, but it’s true. When I’m browsing for books, I usually scan for female authors – I’ve found that this goes double when I am looking for YA – in spite of the fact that I LOVE plenty of male novelists. So anyway, I picked this one up. At first I absolutely hated the voice of Albert, the nerdy teenaged narrator – I found it implausibly jokey and contrived. I didn’t believe in some of the characters (notably, his parents). But as the story wore on and I realized that Albert was an unreliable narrator, was supposed to be untrustworthy and shtick-y and hopelessly dorky, the book clicked for me. I still had trouble rooting for Al to get the girl, because he was so needy and smothering (THAT part did seem realistic, for a teenaged boy!), but it didn’t seem to matter whether I rooted for him or not, it was enjoyable to love/hate him and I liked that this book felt truly unique.

* Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I saved the best one for last, even though this was the first YA novel I read in this batch of books. In fact, this was the book that made me want to both write a YA novel and to read more of them – a lot more. I haven’t read Rowell’s adult-audience books yet, but I have read her other YA novel Eleanor & Park. What I love about Rowell is that she beautifully captures the emotional richness of adolescence, the way that time in a person’s life just feels so enormous and momentous – but is also ordinary and small. Eleanor & Park was a sweet love story that made me ugly-cry out loud, but I fell in love with Fangirl. The story is simple – Cath and her twin sister Wren go off to college, navigate separating from each other and from their dad, Cath struggles with balancing schoolwork with her passion for writing fanfic, and there is a love story. It’s really the way Rainbow Rowell writes Cath’s endearing and unforgettable character – I feel like she must love her at least as much as her readers do – that breathes life into this story. Especially if you happen to have ever been a college freshman, a young woman, a writer, and a book lover, this book is simply irresistible.

What Are You Reading? MaddAddam Edition

Books

IMG_5106In April I had the pleasure of attending a reading and book signing by the legendary novelist and poet Margaret Atwood. Meeting an author whose books I’ve loved for years was a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was willing to sign any of her books after the reading, an array of choices that was rather dizzying, but I chose to purchase a copy of her new novel MaddAddam for the signing. This is the last in a trilogy of books beginning with Oryx and Crake, which I originally read when it was first published. Although it’s significantly different from most of her other work (with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale – all four books sometimes being dubbed science fiction, Ms. Atwood prefers to call them speculatory fiction), I fell in love with Oryx and Crake when I first read it. It’s one of the few books that I have reread – three times now.

***SPOILER ALERT***

It’s virtually impossible to describe the plot of the trilogy in any way without spoilers, so I’m not going to avoid them. If you want to go into these books blind, and I can understand why you would although I’d say they’re still excellent even if you know what’s going to happen, STOP READING NOW.

I MEAN IT.

Oryx and Crake. The first in the series follows Jimmy, aka Snowman, who in the present day is living in a tree on the beach after most of the world’s human population has been decimated. I TOLD YOU THERE WERE SPOILERS. Jimmy is keeping watch over the Crakers, a small tribe of a new type of human bioengineered by Jimmy’s childhood friend Crake (nee Glenn). Much of the book consists of flashbacks to Jimmy’s early days, from his mother’s abandonment, through high school and college days while friends with Crake, and into adulthood. Jimmy is a class clown as a kid and later a womanizer, a deflector, a dissembler. (I would love to discuss his character with anyone else who’s read the trilogy because I am curious about how others see him. I felt that in this novel he seemed to a person who purposely plays dumb to dissociate himself both from trouble and from pain; but later books narrated by other characters portray him as truly clownish and clueless.)

The book portrays a future in which corporations rule the world and the natural world is utterly at the mercy of human ambition. It’s chilling to read about some things that have already come to pass (human-animal gene splicing) and those that are, terrifyingly, all too plausible (pharmaceutical companies that embed poisons and pathogens into vitamins to further their medication sales). Law and order, like everything else, have been privatized, and personal privacy has been mostly erased. Society is split into an elite class who work for and live in corporation-run compounds, and the poor and underprivileged who live in the chaotic “pleeblands.” The environment has been ravaged, with severe weather events and frequent animal extinctions become commonplace. This dystopia is horrifying precisely because it reads like a projection of what our society WILL become without major course corrections.

On my first reading I was left feeling somewhat mystified by the title of the novel, which is not, in a literal way, really about Oryx or Crake. The character of Oryx is also followed somewhat loosely from childhood to adulthood. Jimmy and Crake first encounter her “acting” in a child pornography video (a mainstream form of entertainment in this future world) and she becomes a symbol of something essential – purity perhaps, innocence, vulnerability, all of these being heavily ironic as Oryx herself professes to be none of the above – that Jimmy clings to as he floats aimlessly into adulthood. She turns up again as Crake’s love interest and his scientific colleague as well as Jimmy’s lover. When I first read the novel a decade ago I was disappointed that I never got to know Oryx or find out the truth of her life story – she is a slippery figure on many levels.

Having read the entire trilogy now I think that the novel is titled Oryx and Crake because it is a Genesis story and they become the primary deities in the new world that will unfold. Even as they stand at the center of this story they are elusive and shadowy. Exalted and idealized but also remote. Their truths are impossible to grasp. Jimmy bumbles along far below, messy, goofy, directionless, yearning for love and meaning but constantly distracted by selfishness and cowardice. Jimmy is us, the human race – and, as it turns out, the one little corner of it that Crake deems worth saving.

* The Year of the Flood. The middle novel in the series feels like a bit of a return to Atwood form with two female narrators alternating throughout the book. Toby is a middle aged woman who has survived the “Waterless Flood” (this book’s term for the pandemic that Crake has unleashed to destroy most of humanity) by barricading herself into the AnooYoo Spa where she used to work as manager. She is a former member of the God’s Gardeners, a spiritual group that revered nature and sequestered itself from modern society. Meanwhile, Ren is a young exotic dancer who survives the Waterless Flood because she was in a quarantine tank at the dance club after a client exposed her to disease. Ren is also, we find out, a former member of God’s Gardeners.

Chapters about the backstories of Toby and Ren are interspersed with present day scenes and punctuated with sermons and hymns from the God’s Gardeners holy days. The Gardeners particularly revere the small, ordinary things of the natural world that have been trampled by their technology-obsessed mainstream culture – the mushrooms, the nematodes, the bees. They are tending gardens and beehives and storing food and supplies for the Waterless Flood they are sure is coming soon. Their theology is a mix of old testament Christianity and what we would think of as lefty, anti-corporate environmentalism (other religions mentioned in the book sound like offshoots of Prosperity Gospel). Toby joins when she is rescued from an abusive relationship as an adult and always struggles somewhat with her faith, while Ren joins as a child and experiences the religion more as a foundation of her identity.

Toby’s and Ren’s stories converge in the present tense as they find each other and eventually wind up in a standoff between two criminals, themselves, and none other than Jimmy – with the Crakers headed their way.

While Oryx and Crake is a story that unfolds slowly, suffused with dread, like a bad dream turning into a horrible and inescapable nightmare, Year of the Flood is a story that unfolds slowly, lit by a spark of hope, like a green shoot pushing through a pile of rot. The Gardeners are conservationists, protecting not only the plant life and knowledge that humanity will need after the predicted apocalypse, but also the better aspects of human nature – kindness, love, faith, community. When the Flood sweeps through, the garden itself is lost, but hope stays alive in the persons of Toby and Ren. I think that in fact this could have been a sequel that ended the story – it felt complete with these two books, and I would have been content to imagine what happened next. Not that I was disappointed to have another installment….

* MaddAddam. From the beginning of the trilogy we have known that MaddAddam was a group of scientists working on rogue bioengineering projects and ultimately involved in Crake’s project to create a new human race. But who were they exactly? The final book answers that question in some biographical detail and continues the present day story where Flood left off.

MaddAddam, as it turns out, began as a splinter group that formed when Zeb split off from the Gardeners, led by Adam One. Zeb was unsatisfied with Adam’s pacifist stance and felt that more aggressive action was needed to shake up the trajectory that society was taking. He presided over the Maddaddam group as they unleashed a series of new bioforms that would disrupt society without harming people physically. Though we were at first led to believe (by Crake) that these scientists were later recruited to help Crake with his experiments, we now find out that Crake in fact captured and enslaved them under threat of death.

The key elements of this novel are of course the present day story, the backstory of the life of Zeb (and by extension his brother Adam), and the development of an ever more complex theology for the Crakers, the new human race created by Crake in captivity before being released by Jimmy after the Flood. In order to satisfy some basic questions and anxieties of the Crakers, Jimmy had invented a simple religion wherein Crake was creator of all people/Crakers and Oryx was creator and protector of animal life and nature. Jimmy was a prophet who could communicate directly with Crake, and Toby takes over the role while Jimmy lies in a coma for a portion of MaddAddam.

I have to admit that I was a little befuddled by a lot of the story of Zeb. In the larger view where Atwood is creating an entire new culture, I could see how he would be part of the new canon – the archetypical Hero figure. Obviously he figures into the main action as a key member of the MaddAddam group and as Adam One’s brother, and Toby’s love interest. Still I found his character and his irreverence jarring sometimes. I think I may just need to reread and soak it in, as I have learned from rereading the previous two books that there is a lot more here than I could really absorb with one read through.

The budding Craker religion was fascinating, especially given that we know Crake had deliberately attempted to breed religion (and singing) out of this new species, and failed. Atwood is clearly telling us that music and religion are part of who we are. I suspect that she is also telling us that in these two inevitable strands of our DNA are two more inevitable strands – the pitfalls of dogma and the corrupting influence of knowledge, as well as the beauty and redemption of art. The Crakers are also introduced to literacy as one of the children learns to read and write from Toby; the book concludes with the first written history of the new people – and so, we see, their culture has truly begun.

Thus the human race is given a chance to start over, with all of the ingredients of good and evil seeded into the garden. How will the world be remade by the Crakers and by their human-hybrid offspring? I was pleased that this was left open ended because it seemed the natural conclusion to say that we just don’t know.

What Are You Reading?

Books

Recently I saw a Buzzfeed list of books called “22 Books You Should Read Now, Based on Your Childhood Favorites.” I love this list! Both columns are great – the books for kids and the ones for adults. This is now my go-to book list when I don’t have some other pressing book desire.

I picked Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore from the list because I adored The Westing Game when I was about 10 years old and had all but forgotten that book! I remember feeling as though it was a secret discovery that hardly anyone had heard of, but of course it is a classic – I also want to go back and read that soon. Mr. Penumbra is a delightful mystery about a little bookstore, an ancient secret society, and the interplay between old and new technology. Full of quirky characters, plot twists, and pop Internet references, it’s lighthearted and funny and bursting with a kind of sunny love of life that I found maybe a little unserious but certainly thoroughly charming.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, maybe you’ve heard of this obscure little paperback? Haha. I am slowly making my way through old HP because I’ve never read it before, that’s right, never. I was not that interested in children’s lit when the series originally came out but I’m getting around to it now. Only two books in but it’s fun so far.

I heard about The Circle from a Blogher post, and while I’m not the world’s biggest Dave Eggers fan, I was intrigued by the plot synopsis about a young woman named Mae who goes to work for a big social media company and finds herself entwined in a cult like dark side of the group. “The Circle” is something like if Facebook, Twitter, and Google were all subsumed into one giant entity, plus some futuristic technology (“retinal” computers, ear pieces, and a lot more). At times the message here was heavy-handed and annoying, especially in the voice of Mercer, Mae’s ex-boyfriend, who argues piously with her about her technology-mediated life… every time Mercer went on another Luddhite rant against social media I felt like Eggers was preaching directly at me. I’m not sure why he did this when the rest of the book’s plot got the point across just fine. I think I was irritated by this book for about half of its length – in particular, around page 200 of this 700 page novel I started to wonder how it could possibly go on in this vein – but by the end it had won me over. And in the end it did really make me think about my own social media habits and to what weird extent I might be hooked on Likes and comments and so on. Worth a read if you can pardon some preachiness and repetitive bits early on.

Another book I just read from the Buzzfeed list is The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The novel follows a group of friends from when they meet at art camp in the summer of 1974, through to the present day when they are in their 50s. All have varying degrees of talent as teenagers and all end up with varying levels of personal and professional success as adults. It’s interesting to me that this book has very mixed reviews on Goodreads and the most common complaint is that readers had trouble connecting with the characters and/or felt that nothing in particular happened in the book. I did not feel this way on either count, but I can understand this view – so I recommend it with the caveat that apparently a lot of people do not like it! It’s a long one, so if you get 200 pages in and don’t care for it yet you probably won’t fall in love. We enter the story through the viewpoint of Julie (soon to be dubbed Jules), an awkward girl who comes to camp to escape the sadness of her family life after her dad dies. She is brought into the fold of a little group that she considers the coolest and most talented bunch at camp. Other readers gripe that there is nothing all that interesting about these people, but I think it rings true that when you are a teen and find YOUR people, you think they are the coolest and most interesting people who ever lived. For me this whole book is really just about that – ordinary lives that seem so much MORE simply because they are yours. Despite the sweeping timeline, Wolitzer hasn’t written an epic – she’s written something is actually quite small, but true.