Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Autism”

ElCicco#CBR4 Review #43: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Set mainly in Ethiopia from the 1950s into the 1980s, Cutting for Stone  by Abraham Verghese is the story of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva, whose biological parents were an Indian nun and an English surgeon who worked together at Missing Hospital. When mom dies in birth and dad flees, the boys are raised by two Indian doctors at the hospital, Hema and Ghosh, and follow their own distinct paths in the field of medicine.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. The characters, including Ethiopia itself, are beautifully drawn and complicated, capable of making you both admire them and become exasperated by them. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic oath and refers to performing an operation for which you are not trained (doctors take an oath not to cut for stone). At the “Missing Hospital” (which was really named the Mission Hospital, but local pronunciation made it sound like “missing” and so “missing” it became), there are only a handful of qualified doctors on staff, and Dr. Stone is the only surgeon. He and the other doctors frequently must “cut for stone” because there is no other option for the poor in Addis Ababa. If they don’t try to perform some sort of operation, the patients will die anyway.

The words “stone” and “missing” have much meaning throughout this novel. Stone is the surname of three characters, all surgeons, and is a medical term (as in gall stone, kidney stone), but stone also carries certain connotations — hardness, lack of feeling or sympathy. The characters named Stone can be rather hard and stony. And at Missing Hospital, much is indeed missing: adequate supplies, trained personnel, fathers. The main characters in this book all seem to be fatherless.

This brings us to a theme running throughout the novel — what is a family? How is it defined? In Cutting for Stone, the real family is not necessarily the biological family. Often it’s the members of ones biological family who let one down, who betray and disappoint, while those who choose to become family are most true. For example, Hema and Ghosh (my two favorite characters in the book) are wonderful adoptive parents to Marion and Shiva, Matron is a surrogate grandmother, and Gebrew and Almaz are like a doting aunt and uncle. I must add that the scene on the airplane where Hema is introduced is my favorite scene in the book. It is hilarious and gives you a heads up as to what kind of woman Hema is — one who just isn’t going to put up with any nonsense.

The characters who exasperated me the most were Shiva, Marion (who narrates the story) and Genet — the daughter of Shiva/Marion’s nanny who becomes a revolutionary. Each of these characters annoyed me at times and did distinctly unlikable things. The relationship among the three is complicated and is what drives much of the plot, so I don’t want to give it away, but Marion and Shiva are twins who were conjoined at birth and had to be surgically separated. They seem to share a mystical bond that becomes broken and must be healed. I found that aspect of the plot to be powerful and moving.

One final observation: one of the characters has autism. If you know anything about autism, you will know who I mean and why. I “liked” Abraham Verghese on Facebook and posted a question about this on his wall. I later saw that NPR had a discussion wall on Cutting for Stone where readers could post questions, and someone else had asked my question. Verghese replied in the affirmative — the character is an Aspie even though this is never said in the book. It’s a minor part of the story, but for those of us living with autism, it really sticks out!


ElCicco#CBR4Review#27: An American Story by Ethan Russell

The full title of this book is An American Story: It’s Your History, Help Write It. V 1.0 by Ethan Russell. Russell is a photographer known for the work he did with the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, John and Yoko, and The Who. I was drawn to this book, which is available in e-book form only, because I am an historian by training (PhD in Russian History), I was born in 1964, which technically makes me a boomer, and I was intrigued with the idea of an e-history book that could link readers to all kinds of information that would not be available so readily in a standard history text. I hate to say it, but I was disappointed in this book both as history and as an example of innovative use of modern technology to link readers to the past.

Let’s start with the tech aspect of the book. First, the photos are great and the reader can enlarge them to fill the screen. There are iconic shots of Lennon, the Beatles, the Stones, etc. as well as previously unseen photos. Thumbs up for that. The information links provided in the text are another matter. They are predominantly to music videos, and I don’t have a problem with linking to them, but I feel that Russell could have done so much more than this. The text that appears with the links is simply a reiteration of what appears in the book instead of an expansion on any given theme or an excerpt from someone else’s work. For example, when he mentions historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, he links to a photo of the book cover but doesn’t provide an excerpt or even give a short summary of the work. He does the same with David McCullough’s biography of Truman. Sometimes, certain links are used over and over rather than provide any new information. For example, Russell makes reference to David McCullough’s brilliant biography of John Adams. He links to information about Adams and a video clip from the HBO John Adams series. Fine. Then Russell refers to Washington and Lincoln with hyperlinks back to John Adams. Why not provide new information on each of those people? I also felt that there was so much information about the events of the 1960s that could and should have been shared and explained but was not. More about that below.

My bigger problem with this book is as a history. Russell believes that “… the history of the Baby Boomers has been so badly mangled — especially in the mass media — that it needs correction.” He goes on to explain that this is “… a hunt to find a version of the Baby Boomers’ history that might bear some resemblance to the times I lived through. This has been driven by my persistent and unpleasant perception  that the era of the Baby Boomers has been reduced … to a simplistic and pejorative narrative..,” and that, “If one were to inquire, the current, popular conception of — and response to — the sixties might be to dismiss the entire era as drug-addled and delusional. This perception needs to be challenged.” What evidence is there of this “perception”? Russell provides none despite that fact that he has access to the whole wide web for the images, words and video clips. I think Russell’s premise is a classic “straw man” — a weak position that no one is really taking and that allows the writer to easily defeat it.

The funny thing is, Russell doesn’t really even address his thesis head on as he writes. Instead of a history, he presents a sort of memoir, but even as a memoir this book is unsatisfactory. It’s sketchy and episodic in dealing with the author’s personal experiences, and jumps forward and backward in time. Russell doesn’t do a very good job of placing any of it in a larger context. He seems to have spent much of the 1960s as a detached, sometime-observer of the major events going on around him. He devotes no attention to the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, or the successful space program (major highlights of the decade); he provides little to no detail about the war in Vietnam, presidential politics, race riots and the tragic assassinations of the decade — the very events that cause others who experienced them to say, “I remember where I was when….” One egregious omission as far as I’m concerned is the year 1968. This was the year of the Tet Offensive and My Lai, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, race riots across the nation, the Democratic Convention in Chicago — a year of stunning violence in the United States. Ethan Russell spent that year in England. He and his sister had gone there on their father’s expense account in 1967, looking for the music scene and drugs. Russell stumbled into the job of photographing Mick Jagger for Rolling Stone magazine, and from there, got jobs photographing the Stones, Beatles, etc. 1968 was an awesome year for Russell. Who wouldn’t rather spend the year doing what he did? I don’t begrudge him that amazing opportunity, but he seems oblivious to the impact of the events of 1968 on those who were in the US, leading average lives of work, school or military service. What Russell remembers and experienced of the 1960s is unique, not the common experience of most Baby Boomers, in my opinion. An American Story does give its readers the chance to update the story themselves, by adding their own stories to the blog. I like this idea, but I would rather see Russell fix the holes in his story.

One more complaint I have about Russell’s description of his experience in England, 1968, has to do with two chapters, “Sunny South Kensington” and “Christopher,” which, incredibly, deal with autism. People who know me, know that I have two boys with autism spectrum disorders and so I am quite finely attuned to matters dealing with that topic. Apparently, while in London and looking for something to do in 1968, Russell decided to volunteer at St. John’s Wood Children’s Hospital which cared for kids with autism. It’s a lovely thing to do, but a couple things bothered me. First, the woman running the program tells Russell that the children have autism due to a traumatic separation from the mother. This smacks of Bruno Bettelheim’s widely vilified and discredited refrigerator mother theory. I wouldn’t expect anyone in 1968 to know what a load of crap that theory was, but if Russell is going to put this in his book, he might like to do a little research to see what autism really is and thus educate his readers and himself. Russell also writes about saying goodby to one child, Christopher, with whom he had worked and who needed to be placed in a group home. He writes, “I tell Christopher good-bye and he acts as if he understands. Got along without me before he met me.” That ends the chapter. No wondering how Christopher might be doing, no thought that despite his autism, Christopher might have feelings just like anyone else and be sad but unable to show it. You would actually have to do some research into the topic and want to know more to learn that. The fact that Russell doesn’t bothers me.

In part 2 of this book (which is roughly the last quarter of the book), Russell tries to impose context on his personal narrative, but it’s too little and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a bit lazy. This section might have worked better at the beginning, but again, your theme and main points need to be hit within the text if you expect to convince your readers of legitimacy of your argument.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#15: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

“If we all understood each other better, we could go a long way toward stopping violence.” Kathryn Erskine writes this in her Author’s Note at the end of the beautiful and brilliant Mockingbird. Told from the point of view of a fifth grader with Asperger’s syndrome, Mockingbird shows how difficult it is for Caitlin Smith to negotiate the mundane circumstances of everyday life, and how much more complicated and heartbreaking it is for her to have to learn to deal with the death of her beloved older brother in a school shooting. Erskine notes that the shootings at Virginia Tech as well as her desire to show what it is like to be a child who has Asperger’s syndrome were the inspiration for this novel, which won a National Book Award for youth literature in 2010.

When the novel opens, Caitlin’s brother Devon is already dead, and she and her father are all that is left of the family, their mother having died of cancer years ago. Caitlin’s brother helped her with daily life skills — explaining how other people might be thinking or feeling, how to deal with others appropriately, how to dress and act like a girl her age. He was also her friend. When he dies, Caitlin knows she is on her own and really feels his loss and her own great sorrow, but having Asperger’s syndrome causes her to act and say things that make others ill at ease. For example, she speaks of Devon in the present tense when discussing the past because he was alive then. When Caitlin discovers that this upsets her father, she begins referring to him as “Devon who is dead,” which also upsets her father. Caitlin is always working hard to understand the world around her, but it seems that very few others try to understand her. One who does is the school guidance counselor Mrs. Brook, who tries to help Caitlin make friends and come to terms with her grief. Eventually Caitlin, who possesses extraordinary reading skills, learns the word “closure” and begins a quest for closure for herself and her father that will involve an unfinished Eagle Scout project that Devon left behind.

Caitlin’s peers’ reactions to her are among the more interesting and heartbreaking sections of the book. The girls react cruelly and thoughtlessly to Caitlin’s efforts at being friendly. In one case, Caitlin, at the recommendation of Mrs. Brook, tries to sit with girls in the lunchroom only to be told by one girl that she doesn’t want to sit with anyone. The girl really just doesn’t want to sit with Caitlin, but Caitlin does not pick up on this and as a result, when other girls go to sit with this girl, Caitlin goes over and tells them to leave. Caitlin is confused by the girl’s angry reaction to her help. On another occasion, a classmate comes to school with a bruised face from a bike accident. Because the girl seems very self-conscious about her injuries and doesn’t want people staring at her (which Caitlin understands and feels constantly), Caitlin moves the girl’s desk away from the group and facing a wall, which upset the girl even more.

Caitlin’s only success at friendship comes with a first grader named Michael. Caitlin finds it very easy to talk to him, and she learns that Michael’s mother was the teacher who died in the shooting. This friendship becomes complicated when the fifth grade bully, Josh, whose cousin was the shooter, is selected to be Michael’s “reading buddy.”

The resolution to Mockingbird is poignant. We see Caitlin make great strides in feeling empathy, and it is clear that the “neuro-typicals” have as much (if not more) to learn in that department as Caitlin. I like the way Erskine shows that some few people  begin to look at Caitlin differently and appreciate her struggle, even though most still do not. That is realistic, in my opinion.  As the mother of two boys on the autistic spectrum, I would love to see a broad sweeping change in attitude toward those who don’t fit the mold, but I know we are lucky when we find a few who “get it” and value our kids and their abilities, who can see past “disability.”

I have mentioned autism and my family before, and I promise I am not going to spend the rest of the year reviewing autism-related books. When I read, I actually like to get away from autism for a while. But April is Autism Awareness month, and Mockingbird is one of the best, truest descriptions of Asperger’s syndrome that I have seen. I would love for Mockingbird to get into the hands of as many young readers as possible because then, maybe, more people, an entire generation if I dare to hope, will “get it” and learn to understand and value those who are different. As Erskine writes, “Understanding people’s difficulties and — just as crucial — helping people understand their own difficulties and teaching them concrete ways to help themselves will help them better deal with their own lives and, in turn, ours.”

ElCicco#CBR4Review #13: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a novel about time, but it is not told in chronological order and any one chapter could stand on its own as a short story. It seems at first that the chapters are only tangentially related to one another, but taken all together, they do present an engaging and thought provoking commentary on the passage of time and what happens when it seems like nothing is going on, during the “rests,” to use a musical term. Music and the music industry figure prominently in most of the stories, and the passage of time has as much impact on that industry as it does on any other character in this novel.

The first two chapters focus on Sasha and Bennie, and from there, move backwards to unravel their pasts, how they came to know each other, how they came to become involved in music, and the various people who were part of their personal stories, spinning out a web of events and individuals who don’t always recognize their connection to each other. The points of view of a dozen or more characters are presented chapter by chapter as we move backwards in time. In the final two chapters, however, Egan fast forwards to the future (the 2020’s), presenting the stories of one character’s daughter and then that character’s one-night-stand from decades earlier. The girl’s story is told in a power point presentation, which will be very difficult to read on a Kindle. I had to switch to my iPad. And, interesting side note, the girl has a teenage brother who has autism. Her brother loves music and is obsessed with musical pauses in famous songs — the longer the pause, the more interesting it is to him.

In life, it’s the “rests” that are so important, too – those times when it seems like nothing is happening but in fact, much can be going on that we simply don’t remember or don’t appreciate at the time. Even events that seemed like a big deal to us at a certain age can fade away into the background and be forgotten with time.

Time is a goon, as one character says. If you look up “goon” you will see it defined as a thug or as a fool. Time can behave like a thug, ravaging our bodies and our minds, and it can make us fools, showing us how wrong we were in some of our judgments and decisions. The goon squad comes for us all.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#09: The Case of the Deadly Desperados: Western Mysteries, Book One, by Caroline Lawrence

The Case of the Deadly Desperados, by Caroline Lawrence, is the first in what will be a series of detective mysteries set in Nevada in the 1860s featuring 12-year-old protagonist PK Pinkerton and aimed at the young readers crowd. Lawrence has previously written a critically acclaimed Roman Mysteries series (20+ books) and aims to entertain young readers while simultaneously teaching them. I haven’t read the Roman series but I am giving it serious consideration based on The Case of the Deadly Desperados. Lawrence tells a fast paced, ripping yarn, replete with historical facts and fascinating characters. Some, such as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, are real, while others are products of Lawrence’s rich imagination.

The plot: PK comes home from school in the small western settlement of Temperance, Nevada, to find his foster parents dead, brutally murdered by a trio of outlaws who are now after PK and the document that his Native American mother left him at her death. PK’s father, Robert Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is also dead and so PK is twice orphaned and on the run. He ends up in Virginia City, a bustling and dangerous silver mining town, where he must figure out the document’s significance and whom he can trust before “Whittlin’ Walt” and his thugs find and kill him.

I was initially drawn to this book because I had read that PK seems to have Asperger Syndrome, and as the mother of two boys with autism, I want to see literature for young people that portrays autism spectrum disorders in an accurate and sympathetic manner. While the terms “autism” and “Asperger Syndrome” are never mentioned, as that would be anachronistic, PK would undoubtedly receive a diagnosis today.

PK is aware of his difference and how it is a disadvantage. He says, “I can see every leaf on a cottonwood tree. But here is my problem: I cannot tell if a person’s smile is genuine or false. I can only spot three emotions: happiness, fear & anger. And sometimes I even mix those up…. That is my Thorn: people confound me.” PK also has trouble with facial recognition, has extraordinary math skills, does not like to be touched and does not show emotion.  At one point, he thinks, “I am always happiest when I am on my own…. Does that make me a Heartless Misfit?” It seems obvious to me that Lawrence has created a character who has some significant autistic traits, although PK does not have the perseverations that I have seen in others with autism spectrum disorders, and he handles abrupt, life-changing situations and the need to move away from his familiar home without anxiety or a meltdown. Nonetheless, I like the way she has drawn PK and the reactions of those who meet him — some are sympathetic, some confused and put off, and some are bullies.

One character who helps PK is Grafton T. Brown, a real life African American painter who spent time in Virginia City and drew it. Brown helps PK distinguish people by looking at their ears instead of their faces. Poker Face Jace is another who helps PK. A professional gambler, Jace is amazed and impressed by PK’s lack of facial expression and tries to help PK learn to read people by their body language. PK learns that a man’s face is the most dishonest part of his body and that he would be better off looking at a man’s feet to see if he is happy, anxious or bluffing. I love the PK/Jace relationship. PK understands that Jace’s knowledge is more valuable than silver or gold and will help him survive, maybe even become a detective like his father Robert.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is a fast-paced, action-packed, immensely entertaining story. Lawrence provides a couple of very interesting plot twists at the end and has created a colorful collection of supporting characters for future stories. Lawrence also includes some great historical information on life in a western mining town and does an admirable job of portraying the weaknesses and strengths of a person who has Asperger Syndrome. I look forward to reading the series with my own boys some day and finding out what they make of PK.

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