Friday, July 30, 2010

Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is an extraordinary person. A person with autism, she has obtained a doctorate (from the University of Illinois--oskee-wow-wow!), is a leader in the field of designing humane facilities for handling of animals (including slaughterhouses), has written several books, and is a professor at Colorado State University who lectures widely on both autism and Thinking in Pictures is part memoir, part explication of autism, complete with tips for those educating or raising autistic children. For a reader who is not autistic, does not have an autistic child, and does not work with autistic children, the portions of the book about Grandin's own life are by far the most compelling.

Grandin's description of how her mind works is fascinating--she thinks in pictures and regards words as "a second language." Her mind operates something like a computer--scanning through visual files to find the images relevant to a particular situation or problem. While it took her many years to realize fully how different her mind was from other people's, she does a good job of conveying that difference to those of us who are word-bound. She also provides insight into other ways that autism has affected her and to the possible similarities between the brains of animals and people, especially people with autism. I found the sections in which she reviews autism-related research and treatment less interesting, though they might be very useful to others: she is also a bit quick to label various contemporary and historic figures as autistic.

As a reader, I hate to say this, but--despite some highlights in the book--I think the HBO film about her early life (titled Temple Grandin) is better than Thinking in Pictures. Given Grandin's visual proclivity, I wonder if she would agree.

Favorite passage:
To destroy other people's culture is to rob them of their immortality.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ordinary Heroes, by Scott Turow

When we nominated books for future Novel Conversations reading, my friend Kendall proposed a moratorium on World War II books. I agreed--and then somehow I picked up Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes. I obviously had looked too closely at the book, as I expected the usual Turow legal thriller. While the story has legal aspects--the main character, David Dubin, is a JAG attorney-- it's primarily a novel about World War II.

Turow uses a story within a story device. Stewart Dubinsky, a recently divorced journalist who retired to write a book, is stunned when he discovers, while going through his recently deceased father's papers, had been court-martialled during World War II and had jilted his fiancee. Stewart's mother will tell him nothing about his father's history, so he decides to use his journalistic skills to uncover his father's past. The bulk of the book is devoted to what he learns, with much less time devoted to how the knowledge of his father's war-time activities affected Stewart.

Although I plugged my way through the entire book, reading about battles and military strategy is not my thing. The twists the story takes are interesting, as are the changes in David's thinking as he experiences war first-hand, but the pluses are not enough to make me recommend this book to anyone who is not a WWII buff.

Favorite passage:
"Your father," she said, stopping to pick a speck of sugar off her tongue and to reconsider her words. Then, she granted the only acknowledgment she ever has of what I faced with him. "Stewart," she said, "your father sometimes had a difficult relationship with himself."

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I was prepared to hate this book--I'm usually irritated when white storytellers (whether in book or film) appropriate African-American stories. But friends kept telling me how much they enjoyed the book, and Novel Conversations chose it as our August book. So, I picked up The Help and surprise, surprise....I enjoyed it.

Stockett creates three memorable characters whose experiences in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, provide a window into the lives of black domestic workers and young white women who want to be more than hypocritical Junior League do-gooders. First we meet Aibileen, an African-American woman who has raised 17 white babies (her only child died in a tragic workplace accident not too long before the book begins), trying to inoculate them against racism and the pain of being ignored by their mothers. Her current child is Mae Mobley, a sweet little girl whose mother Elizabeth actually seems to hate her.

Elizabeth is friendly with the book's second major character, Skeeter--a recent college graduate who wants to be a writer but can only find a job answering housekeeping questions for the local newspaper. Since as a white woman whose mother has always had "help," she has no idea how to solve the dilemmas posed, she turns to Aibileen for help. Eventually, they come up with the idea of publishing a book of interviews with African-American maids in which they tell what it is like to work for white women, raising their children, feeding their families, and living with their intentional and unintentional cruelties as well as the genuine affection in some relationships.

The first woman they recruit for the project is Minny, who has been fired numerous times because she simply can't stop herself from speaking out. She has been fired by Hilly, another friend of Elizabeth and Skeeter. She finally finds a job (via some subterfuge by Aibileen) with Celia, a somewhat trashy woman who married Hilly's former boyfriend. Meanwhile, Minny has five children and an abusive husband with whom she must cope on the home front.

The three women know that their project could have serious negative consequences for them and the other women they recruit to take part--the murder of Medgar Evers and the March on Washington take place while they are conducting interviews. But they press on. When the book is published, there is immediate speculation that it is about Jackson, and some people recognize themselves in stories--good and bad.

The book has some weaknesses--there are a lot of different plot lines and some of them become a bit soapy and predictable. Skeeter's two friends, Elizabeth and Hilly (who, of course, are lost as friends before the book ends), seem to have no redeeming characteristics. Stockett does a better job with Skeeter's mother, who has both glaring weaknesses and endearing qualities. Also, I still have some qualms about a white author writing dialect. Overall, however, The Help is an interesting exploration of its time and place, and the scenes in which Aibileen tries to prepare Mae Mobley to be different kind of Southern white woman are very moving.

Favorite passage:
I look deep into her rich brown eyes and she look into mine. Law, she got old-soul eyes, like she done lived a thousand years. And I swear I see, down inside, the woman she gone grow up to be. A flash from the future. She is tall and straight. She is proud. She got a better haircut. And she is remembering the words I put in her head. Remembering as a full-grown woman.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen

A few weeks ago, I was on a roll with a series of books I really enjoyed. Now I'm on a bit of a reverse roll--Every Last One is the third book in a row that I haven't cared for (and I may tell more in this review than you want to know if you plan to read the book).

Anna Quindlen is an excellent writer, and her nonfiction writing shows her to be an empathetic and intelligent woman. With the exception of One True Thing, which was based in part on events in her own life, I don't find her novels to have the depth I would expect from her.

Every Last One begins slowly, probably intentionally so. Quindlen is painting a picture of an "average" family with typical problems. There are some cracks in the marriage of Mary Beth and Glenn, but those cracks don't seem to threaten the future of their marriage. Their three teenagers have given them some problems--Ruby is a recovering anorexic who has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend (who isn't taking it well) and wants her parents to butt out of her personal life, and 14-year-old Max is a depressed nerd who apparently has no friends (not even his twin Alex, who is immersed in sports). Midway through the book, a terrible act of violence occurs, and the rest of the book tells how the surviving family members cope. Quindlen does a competent job describing the grieving process and the interactions of people who are grieving, both with their loved ones and other friends--I even cried once or twice. While this part of the book is much more interesting than the first half, I didn't feel she provided any new insights to a topic that has been covered many times before.

In all fairness, I have to admit that I haven't found any of the post-Columbine novels that deal with mass violence by teenagers particularly rewarding. I didn't care for either Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes or Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed (which uses the actual Columbine killings as a plot device). I couldn't make it through Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (maybe I should try again). I know there are a number of recent YA titles that deal with teen violence; I haven't read any of these and may check out a couple to see how they deal with the topic. It may be that Quindlen has written a very insightful book about teen violence and grief and I am not personally ready for novels on this topic (although I have read several of the post-9/11 novels and found them to offer some new ways of thinking about that event). Nonetheless, I don't recommend this book.

Favorite passage:
I have a half-dozen clients now who hire me to decorate their trees; I have one who has three trees, one in the two-story living room, one in the wood-paneled den, one in the cavernous kitchen. I went into this business [landscaping] because I loved the slow and gradual nature of it, the undeniable logic of the natural world. Now much of what I do is simply show, an attempt to present a gaudy mask to others. There is nothing more joyless than decorating the Christmas tree of someone you barely know.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sizzling Sixteen, by Janet Evanovich

Here I am again, complaining about a mystery series gone bad. The Stephanie Plum novels used to be fun--full of quirky characters in Stephanie's family, at her job as a bounty hunter, and generally scattered around Trenton, New jersey, where she lives. Now, the characters have become tedious and predictable, highlighting the ridiculous plots. Even the "sexual tension" between Stephanie and her two men--Ranger and Morelli--has lost its zip. Sizzling Sixteen isn't worth another sentence.