Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Insight Into Autism

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida,
Introduction by David Mitchell
2013 (English translation)
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the most illuminating insight into the mind of an autistic child that I've seen. Naoki Higashida was born in 1992 and was diagnosed with autism when he was 5. One of his teachers designed an alphabet grid to help Naoki communicate his thoughts, which were then printed into a book in Japan in 2007.

The writer David Mitchell, who has an autistic son, found it and pushed to get an English translation published. In the introduction, Mitchell wrote that the book was "a revelatory godsend. Reading it felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head, through Naoki's words."

The book is structured in short sections, with Naoki responding to questions about common behaviors of autistic people. When asked why he repeats what others are saying, Naoki explains how difficult it is for an autistic person to communicate:

"It's quite a complicated process. First, I scan my memory to find an experience closest to what's happening now. When I've found a good close match, my next step is to try to recall what I said at that time. If I'm lucky, I hit upon a usable experience and all is well. If I'm not lucky, I get clobbered by the same sinking feeling I had originally, and I'm unable to answer the question being asked. No matter how hard I try to stop it, that weird voice slips out, making me more flustered and discouraged, and so it gets harder and harder to say anything ... I swear conversation is such hard work! To make myself understood, it's like I have to speak in an unknown foreign language, every minute of every day."

Naoki justifies why autistic people often avoid looking people in the eye when they're talking. "To me, making eye contact with someone I'm talking to feels a bit creepy, so I tend to avoid it ... You might well suppose that we're just looking down, or at the general background. But you'd be wrong. What we're actually looking at is the other person's voice. Voices may not be visible things, but we're trying to listen to the other person with all of our sense organs. When we're fully focused on working out what the heck it is you're saying, our sense of sight sort of zones out ... What's bothered me for a long time is this idea people have that so long as we're keeping eye contact while they're talking to us, that alone means we're taking in every word. Ha! If only that was all it took, my disability would have been cured a long, long time ago."

He also explains why it is that autistic people often find themselves alone, and then everyone assumes that they'd prefer being alone and don't like being around people. Naoki says that isn't true, but being isolated is often a consequence of autism. "I can't believe that anyone born as a human being really wants to be left all on their own, not really. No, for people with autism, what we're anxious about is that we're causing trouble for the rest of you, or even getting on your nerves. This is why it's hard for us to stay around other people. This is why we often end up being left on our own."

There are a lot more questions and answers with Naoki, and he also shares a few short stories he wrote. My biggest takeaways from this book are that autistic people are much more empathetic than the literature shows, and how hard they are working to try and control their bodies and their thoughts. "You can't always tell just by looking at people with autism, but we never really feel that our bodies are our own. They're always acting up and going outside our control. Stuck inside them, we're struggling so hard to make them do what we tell them."

It is telling that as soon as David Mitchell started doing publicity for this book (I saw him interviewed on "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart raved about Naoki's insights) that "The Reason I Jumped" became an instant bestseller. Autism has affected so many families around the world, and many people are trying to understand it better. I think this book will help light the way.

I would highly recommend it to anyone who works with autistic people or who has a loved one who is on the spectrum.

A Man of His Time

 Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Now this is a memoir worth reading! We are in the Age of Memoir, but so few deserve the time. Christopher Hitchens lived enough for 10 lives — he was a revolutionary, journalist, provocateur, vagabond, contrarian, essayist, raconteur, socialist, intellectual, atheist and he loved a good Scotch.

Hitch, as his friends called him, started writing his autobiography when he turned 60. The story goes that in 2009 he was surprised to see the phrase "the late Christopher Hitchens" beneath a photo of himself at an art exhibition, and he knew that the description would eventually become true. Best not to wait too long to write my memoirs, he thought. It was fortunate that he wrote quickly because about a year later, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and he died in December 2011.

Hitch was born in England but had traveled all over the world by the time he was 30. He came of age in the 1960s — the perfect time to be a socialist and a revolutionary. The book has great stories of Hitch's visits to Cuba, Argentina, Iraq, Greece, Africa, Asia, and also America. Hitch emigrated to the United States in the 1980s, and I enjoyed hearing his outsider's perspective on American culture.

One story that I liked happened while Hitch was visiting Cuba in 1968. He questioned whether writers and artists were being censored because they couldn't openly criticize Castro. "I made the mere observation that if the most salient figure in the state and society was immune from critical comment, then all the rest was detail." Later, he was told that his comments had been "counter-revolutionary," and Hitch was thrilled to be so labeled.

Hitch had a good description of his chats with American taxi drivers in the late 1960s. Back then, many cabs were driven by African-American veterans who had been to England during World War II. The cabbies would comment on how nice the English were. "For many of these brave gentlemen, segregated in their U.S. Army units, England was the first picture they ever saw of how a non-segregated society might look."

Hitch also has snort-out-loud tales of his friendships with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and James Fenton. My favorites were when Martin took Hitch to a whorehouse as "research" for a book, and Salman's gift at word games, which were frequently played when the men got together. "I boldly assert that a lot of friendships and connections absolutely depend upon a sort of shared language, or slang. Not necessarily designed to exclude others, these can establish a certain comity and, even after a long absence, re-establish it in a second."

In another chapter, Hitch downplayed stories of his excessive drinking and shared his rules for imbibing: "Don't drink on an empty stomach. Don't drink if you have the blues. Drink when you are in a good mood. It's not true that you should drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less. Be careful about upgrading to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available."

A particularly moving section was Hitch's postscript to his chapter on Iraq. He talked about Mark Daily, an American soldier who was killed by an IED. Daily had been inspired by Hitch's earlier writings about Iraq and decided to serve. When Hitch learned of Daily's death, he reached out to the man's parents, and even went with them to scatter Mark's ashes. It was a tender antidote to the stories of Hitch's contrariness.

I listened to this on audiobook and would highly recommend it to anyone who likes politics, social commentary or a lively conversationalist. Hitch has a lot of opinions, not all of which I agree with, but I loved listening to his stories. Cheers to a life well-lived.

Two Very Different Books from Day Keene

Home Is the Sailor (Hard Case Crime #7)Home Is the Sailor by Day Keene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a career at sea, Swede Nelson comes ashore with the thought of buying a farm in Minnesota and finding a nice girl to marry. It's a shame he runs into the widow Corliss Mason, the owner of the Purple Parrot, and her web of sex, lies, and murder...

Home is the Sailor, much like fellow Hard Case entry The Vengeful Virgin, is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook. You know the plot: a guy falls for a hot young woman and commits murder for her, then starts cracking under the pressure once he realizes she's bad news.

When Corliss comes to Swede the night before their wedding saying she's been raped, who wouldn't do what Swede did? Swede's drunken binges are believable, all things considered. The big reveal near the end was a little obvious but getting there was still one hell of a ride. When the cops start nosing around and Swede begins figuring out what Corliss is really up to, tension mounts and the story kicks into high gear.

So why didn't I give it a five? I found it a little unbelievable that Swede fell so hard for Corliss so fast. As I said before, the big reveal is telegraphed slightly.

If you're a Hard Case fan, this is one of the must-haves.

L.A. 46L.A. 46 by Day Keene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

L.A. 46 is the story of the tenants of Casa del Sol, a LA apartment complex. That's pretty much it as far as summaries go.

Everyone's heard the old adage "You can't judge a book by its cover." You shouldn't but you also should give what's on the cover some consideration. My first exposure to Day Keene was Home is the Sailor, a bleak noir tale straight from the James M. Cain school. When I saw L.A. 46 on the vintage pile at my favorite used bookstore, I snapped it up, the blurb on the cover comparing the novel to Peyton Place barely registering.

L.A. 46 reminds me of the night time soap operas that were so popular in the 80's. All the stock characters are here: The psychiatrist in love with one of his patients, the two models who may or may not be lesbians, the reporter everyone hates, the pregnant woman harboring a dark secret, and many others.

It took me a little while before I realized no hot young vixen was going to get some schmuck to off her husband for her but by then, Keene had me hooked anyway. The bastard. It must have been the prostitute, the stripper, and the woman pregnant with her long-lost brother's child that did it for me. Keene managed to hold my attention, that's for sure.

The most memorable part of the book was the ending, however. I think all the violence Keene had been suppressing exploded from his typewriter at that point. Did Dallas or Dynasty ever have a bloody hostage situation?
While it wasn't what I expected, L.A. 46 was an engaging read. Just don't expect noir goodness like Home is the Sailor.

Still on Goodreads