My Top Ten Books of 2015

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity

I did not read as many books in 2015 as I usually do, and many of the books I read were graphic novels – so, much lower word count this year, if I were counting. It was hard for me to focus my attention on anything book-length, unless it were especially compelling. As a result, of the books that I did read, there are some real superstars. Here are my top ten, in chronological order.

(Note: book links will now take you to Goodreads, since linking to my Amazon affiliate shop is a pain in the ass and I never make any money on them anyway.)

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by Cynthia Kim. Although this book talks about “Asperger’s syndrome,” terminology that I reject and Kim later did as well, this is one of my favorite books about being autistic. Like me, Kim found out she was autistic as an adult, after her “work-arounds” in life started to fail and she began to wonder why exactly she was having a difficult time coping. Obviously this is a great book for anyone who has an adult diagnosis (self- or otherwise) of autism, but it’s also really great at explaining the various aspects of being autistic, just in general. She talks about marriage and parenting a little bit, gives a lot of relatable stimming examples, and I believe this book contains probably the best explanation of executive functioning ever.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Diaz is an author I need to read more, and I’m not sure why I haven’t except that I keep forgetting. This book made me uncomfortable, but in a good way. Yunior, the character at the heart of these short stories, is an asshole and a womanizer, a man I was both drawn to and repulsed by. The writing is raw and honest and has an energy that pulls you in and holds you there.

Blankets by Craig Thompson. Blankets is the book that ignited my passion for graphic novels this year. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking memoir about falling in love and losing your religion, about dysfunctional families and the exhilarating heartache of adolescence. I loved it so much I wished I had written it.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. This is a special interest topic so I’m sure not everyone would enjoy this book, but I really enjoyed it, and it was enormous so it took up a lot of headspace for me this year! Despite the way the author seemed disdainful and misunderstanding toward Charles “Sparky” Schulz through much of the biography, I felt that Sparky shone through as a complicated, often lonely person with a deep passion for his cartoons.

Stitches by David Small. Another outstanding graphic memoir, the word that always comes to mind when I think of Stitches is “haunting.” It’s dark and devastating, but beautiful. The genius of this book is in the way the words and images are perfectly interwoven to tell the story; often the drawings take over the storytelling when words simply cannot. I never wanted this book to end.

I Was A Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan. I adored this weird, weird little memoir. Kaplan is better known as BEK, creator of the minimalist, scribble-like cartoons that the New Yorker made famous. What would a minimalist cartoonist write if he wrote a memoir? A series of little moments of memory, small keyhole views of childhood, perfectly described. Thinking about this book makes me want to read it again and again.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson. I have to admit that this book just barely edged out some others to make my list. I enjoyed this book a lot, it was funny and entertaining and made me feel good, but it didn’t take over my mind the way the other nine on the list did this year.

Between the World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is difficult for me to review or even summarize this book because everything I try to write about it feels small next to the magnitude of Coates’s writing. The book takes the form of a long letter to his son, in which he weaves together his own life story with the larger story of systemic racism – the experience of being black in America. His central argument is that we cannot know how to move forward without taking an honest look at where we’ve been and where we are – but he does this with more elegance and beauty than I can rightly convey.

Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman. I had, and still have, a complicated mix of thoughts and feelings about this book. Its strength lies in telling the world the true history of the pathologization of autism and the way the false concept of an autism epidemic came about – the stories of Asperger, Kanner, Lovaas, and assorted historical figures of that era like Bernie Rimland and Bettleheim and such. Many people have correctly criticized him for white-washing, male-washing, and geek-washing the autistic community and wished that he had done a better job of portraying autistic diversity. Over time I’ve come to think that he should have actually cut even more from this book and just limited his scope to his areas of strength – telling the history of autism research. Autistic people can do a better job of describing our own culture.

The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children ed. Michelle Sutton. As a fitting follow up to Neurotribes, here is an excellent collection of autistic people describing their own culture and sharing their experiences of the world. It’s another book that’s hard to sum up, in this case because of the rich diversity of voices and topics it covers, with essays from Nick Walker, Ally Grace, Emily Paige Ballou, Alyssa Hillary, Cynthia Kim, Kassiane Sibley, Sparrow Rose Jones, Michael Scott Monje Jr., Elizabeth J. Grace, Briannon Lee, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, and Amy Sequenzia, with introductions to each author written by Michelle Sutton. I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in what it means to be an autistic person in the world, from the point of view of those who know best.

I Dreamed of a House

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity, Writing

Dust particles catch the light, forming a glittering beam that looks solid, spearing the front door through its little square windows and ending in blocks of sun on the rug where we put our shoes. I turn to look outside and press my nose to the top middle pane of the window, touch my lips to the dark wooden sash. The wood always smells like rain and the rain always smells like this window. But it’s not raining now. It’s that time when the sun gets really yellow and loud, and you can’t watch TV because there’s too much glare even if you try to close the long green curtains.

I slide down into the couch and try to arrange myself so I’m sitting upside down, my legs up on the back of it, and my head hanging off the seat. When I’m sitting upside down I look at the ceiling and pretend it’s the floor. The living room ceiling has dark wooden beams across it, and I imagine hopping over them as I run across the room. After a while it starts to feel real, that I really live on the ceiling, and can walk from room to room on all the ceilings and see the whole house from there, looking down, or is it up, at all the furniture, and I start to wonder if I could ever invent suction boots that would let me walk up the walls and right over the ceilings for real. And then I am sad.

I once had a recurring dream about a house. It began in my teens and lasted through the next 20 years; every few months I’d have more or less this same dream: I am in a house, it’s my house but not like my house. I discover that there is space in this house that was always there but I never knew of it before. A secret wing, an attic, a basement – the space is vast, larger than seems possible for a room to be and still be part of my house. Finding this place is exciting and important, the key to everything. I wake feeling that a mystery has been revealed in my sleep, but forgotten as the dream fades.

Around the time I realized I was autistic, I stopped having that dream.

One question people ask when you identify as autistic in adulthood is, why find out now? What difference can it make at this point in your life? The answer is that it makes all the difference, for many reasons. For me it is hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to know themselves, but I know for some autistic adults this self discovery isn’t as important, and that’s fine for them.

But there’s also the reality that I can’t wear this old costume anymore. It’s coming apart at the seams and bits of the real me are sticking out here and there, anyway. Since my schoolgirl days people have always commented on my rigid posture, the way I pace when everyone is standing, the way I stand when everyone is sitting, the way when I finally sit down I sit at the edges of chairs, my hands tightly clasped or shoved under my thighs or balled into fists. “Hey, relax,” I’ve been told with a chuckle, too many times to count. “Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” I insist tersely, “I’m fine,” not even realizing. Every atom of my body holding tightly together to muscle my way through it all.

The easy part of it is surprisingly hard, and that’s finding out who I am now. What are my sensory processing differences? One would think that this would be obvious, but when you have lived a few decades not knowing that your perceptions of things are different from anyone else’s – assuming your reactions and responses to everything must simply be wrong – you end up having suppressed not only your reactions to stimuli but also your perceptions. Uncovering these is like unearthing a time capsule, from a time that never was – a time when I was truly myself, when I spoke, moved, felt, and thought with freedom.

Uncovering the natural movements of your own body is uncanny and startling. A lot of autistic people flap their hands when excited or agitated. I don’t flap. Until one day I read a disturbing news story, set down my phone and find myself flapping. And it feels familiar to do this. But where did this come from? It’s not as though I’ve gone looking for ways to act more autistic. By clearing away the dirt and detritus of a life lived trying to be someone else, by peeling away the layers of people that I tried to be, things emerge, unexpectedly.

I had a dream in my adolescence that I was a mummy. I walked down to the water near my house, trying to hide from passing cars in the night. I knelt at the water and tried to tear away the waxy bandages covering my body. But when I did, I found that my heart was exposed, red and beating in my chest. I was afraid. 

Image is a red brick wall with the text: First I must reassemble the foundational building blocks of my world. eisforerin

The hard part of this is disorienting and feels impossible at times: piecing it all together, trying to form a coherent life story for myself. Who I am now is just a moment. It seems important to reassemble the narrative, with this new information. The clues I have are few, because of the way the old stories I told myself distorted reality, and because of the way I’ve simply forgotten the rest, whether by will or by an inability to make sense of it – my brain refusing to allow long term storage to the incomprehensible – I cannot say. Sense memories are the memories that float up when I go dredging up the past, as if to reconstruct my very experience of the world. Feelings come to me – fear, anger, sadness, joy. I want anecdotes, but memory tells me – no. First you must reassemble the foundational building blocks of your world. This is what the sun felt like, this is how the water smelled, these are the sounds that filled the atmosphere.

I have my own bedroom at the back of the house, for a while anyway. The oak trees grow tall at this corner of the property and so it is always shady in the daytime and filled with the sounds of leaves rustling. In summer with the windows thrown open at night, fat junebugs hurl themselves at the screens while I try to fall asleep with a lamp left on, reading in bed. I have a pine wood desk with a tidy desk blotter that makes me feel like it is a real person’s desk where real work is done. I have stationery I use to write to my pen pals, eight pals at once at the peak of my correspondence – my online friends before there was an online. Later in that room I am a teenager and my parents have bought me a brand new oak wardrobe, a beautiful piece of furniture that makes me feel like a real person with a real place to keep my clothing. But one morning before school I have so much trouble trying to choose what to wear that day that I cry in a rage and slam all the doors open and closed and open until one of them cracks, badly, along one rail. I stop. I never tell anyone that I did this. I am ashamed.

Finding other people out there like you when you thought you were the only person like you is also strange, both unsettling and beautiful. When I was a child, I loved the story of the ugly duckling. The ugly duckling, of course, is not ugly at all, but is a cygnet born into the wrong world. Abused by the other animals in the barnyard for looking and behaving “wrong,” he flees the farm and seeks solace in other places, but is repeatedly repelled or put in danger from which he must again run away. He spends a season alone, and in his despair, he finally throws himself before a group of swans, expecting and even willing himself to be killed – but at the same moment, he glimpses for the first time his reflection in the water, and the swans accept him as one of them.

Since I realized I was autistic, I started to have a new recurring dream about a house.

I’m in a house, it’s not mine but it’s one that I have stayed in or am staying in and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s unconventionally designed, rambling, even vast, with lots of surprising turns and hidden hallways. Each room is unique, quirky, with its own vibrant personality. Other people live here – some of them known to me, some not. They each have claimed their own space, but there are still rooms available. There are multiple kitchens and a huge backyard. Sometimes I am showing this house that I love to other people, showing off its charms. Sometimes I am exploring it alone. I think about moving in, but I hesitate. I love it, but can I live here?

And then I am walking through the house with my husband. We are planning out where the children could stay, how we could make this place safe for them. There is a realtor there, waiting for our decision. We tell him: we’ll take it.

And that’s the last time that I dreamed of a house.

What Are You Reading? Graphic Memoir Edition

Books

tomboy

 

Image is the cover of Tomboy by Liz Prince: a cartoon drawing of wood background and a blue rectangle similar to a bathroom sign, with the symbol of a female body and a frowning girl’s face. Underneath the symbol are the words “Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince.”

I love graphic memoirs. I love reading them and I want to write one. I’m totally obsessed with getting my hands on any and all graphic memoirs I can find. Pat Grant, (whose graphic novel Blue I actually didn’t love all that much), has written beautifully on how comics are such a perfect medium for telling the stories of one’s childhood and adolescence – they evoke the language of that era of life, tapping straight into the feelings of youth in a visceral and immediate way. These are a few graphic memoirs that I have loved in the last few months.

(This post contains affiliate links.)

* Tomboy by Liz Prince. This is a delightful memoir that’s so funny and genuine and endearing that I just wanted to give it a big hug. Prince tells an edgy but sweet tale of growing up not feeling like other girls, but also not like a boy – she endures confusion, bullying, and lots of social awkwardness as she tries to find her place in the world and figure out who she really is. As she finds her niche in the world of zines and comic artists and finds other people who both defy gender roles and accept her as she is, she learns that gender is more complicated than just being a boy or a girl, and that’s a good thing. Though this may sound like heavy or academic fare, Prince’s gift is her ability to handle big questions with humor and a down to earth charm. Ultimately this book is just about feeling comfortable with being yourself.

* I Was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan. I admit I am stretching the boundaries of the term graphic memoir by including this – it really isn’t one. It’s a memoir with small cartoon illustrations on each page. But I feel like I can shoehorn it in because it’s about the kind of material that graphic memoirists use – the important images and scenes from the author’s childhood – and also because Kaplan is a cartoonist, better known as the New Yorker’s BEK. The stories in this book are incredibly stripped down, raw, visceral – as are the illustrations, which look like someone scribbled them in the dark on the inside of a paperback after waking from a vivid dream. It’s hilarious, it’s weird, it’s uncanny. Definitely my favorite of everything I’ve read so far this year.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier. This graphic memoir geared toward the kid/tween age range is immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. The drawings are super cute and the story manages to be both unique and highly relatable. In the beginning of the memoir, Raina falls and severely injures her two front teeth, which kicks off a very long series of awful, painful, and embarrassing dental work, right at the time when all kids are pretty much at their peak of self consciousness: middle school. I personally have an extreme fear of dentistry (don’t ask me when’s the last time I went), so this read like a horror novel for me, but the tone is so sweet and funny that it entertained even an odontophobe like me (yes I googled that).

A Game for Swallowsby Zeina Abirached. In a memoir about life during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 80s, Zeina relates the story of a day when her parents go out for a short visit to the other side of Beirut and don’t come home for hours – during that worrying time, her neighbors gather in her apartment to comfort her and her brother, and each other, during the bombing. The artwork and the setting are heavily reminiscent of Persepolis – it’s nearly impossible not to make the comparison immediately – but I think that the tone is markedly different, both in the drawings and the storytelling. Abirached has a style that is whimsical and fairy-tale-like, almost reminding me at times of Tomi de Paola’s children’s books. She gives you a feel for the warmth of Lebanese culture that makes you feel as the children must, cozy and cared for in a safe little nest away from the dangerous world outside.

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.