Book Review : To Siri with Love

This is a memoir written in a series of essays by the mother (Judith Newman) of an autistic teenage boy (Gus). The overall theme of it is the boy learning to connect with machines such as Siri and trains in a way he’s had trouble connecting with humans and that in turn leading to improved connections with human beings. This is a memoir that has generated a lot of controversy, as many people are disgusted by the way this woman writes about her son and autistic people in general.

Let me start out by admitting a couple of things that may get me crucified in the autism advocacy community: I bought this book and there are aspects of it I appreciated.

I was aware of the #boycotttosiri movement and at first I didn’t want to give money towards the book so I read it when I went to the bookstore but eventually I lost patience and purchased it on my Kindle.

I liked that this book gave a counterpoint to the narrative that technology is destroying society and relationships. I don’t use Siri but I’ve found other aspects of technology such as Facebook to be helpful to me when it comes to forging relationships.

It was interesting to me that Gus was initially diagnosed with Nonverbal Learning Disability. That is my official diagnosis. Although only a sentence is devoted to it, exposure in a high profile work may at least make people aware that it’s a deficit in processing nonverbal information (and not an inability to talk, as is often assumed.)

Thanks to this book I learned about some new autism programs that have been developed or are in the process of being developed in my own home state.  There’s a bookstore in New Jersey that only employs people on the autism spectrum and Rutgers is developing an autism living community.

I laughed a few times because the author says some funny things.

That being said, none of the positive aspects of this book are enough to redeem it in my eyes in the face of all the things I find wrong with it. I agree with the criticism leveled at it by the autism advocacy community. I won’t go so far as to say this woman doesn’t love her son, as some have but I will say she writes about him in a disrespectful manner. The overall tone of this book is distasteful and off putting to say the least.

The tone is along the lines of “I’ve suffered this horrible tragedy but I’m not going to let it get me down. Let me tell you how I’ve managed to persevere in the face of this tragedy through dark humor and wit poking fun at the tragedy.” This kind of tone is okay if you’re talking about your cancer diagnosis, your failed marriage or your tornado-ravaged house. It’s not okay when you’re talking about your autistic child.

Let’s start with the passage that has garnered the most outrage: The one where she talks about how she’s going to sterilize Gus because she doesn’t think he’ll be a good parent. She asks “How do I talk about this without sounding like a eugenicist?” You can’t because what you’re talking about is eugenics.  You shouldn’t decide that someone will be a bad parent as an adult based on what they’re like at age thirteen. Actually YOU shouldn’t be deciding whether or not someone else reproduces at all. That’s a decision they should make for themselves

She says that when she envisions Gus having sex she envisions a Benny Hill tune playing in the background and that can’t end well. I don’t know who Benny Hill is so I can’t find that joke funny anyway but it’s especially unfunny that she makes a joke like that at the expense of her son.

Really, the whole book is at her son’s expense. She invades his privacy, makes all kind of embarrassing comments about him and reveals all kinds of embarrassing details about him without his consent. She expresses the belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment, which would explain why she had no qualms about writing a book like this about her son, when I’m sure she would have been humiliated had her own mother written such a book about her.

This belief that autistic people can’t feel embarrassment is erroneous, dangerous and dehumanizing, as are the beliefs she expresses that autistic people can’t feel empathy and have no theory of mind. And the part where she wonders if Gus thinks? I thought my eyes would roll out of my head.

As if commenting on her desire to sterilize her son and on the soundtrack to his sex life weren’t bad enough, she also says that she can’t imagine any girl finding him interesting and complains throughout the book about how uninteresting she herself finds him. You know what?  Given the choice between spending a day with Judith Newman and spending a day with Gus, I would choose Gus, no question.  People who have autism or some other disability, who have atypical interests, behaviors, or speech patterns can be good friends and good lovers. Interesting is in the eye of the beholder.

In case you can’t tell, I don’t like Judith Newman very much. She comes across as selfish, entitled and judgmental. She feels entitled to pass judgement on issues she hasn’t got a clue about. When reflecting back on childhood classmates of hers who were bullied and who she assumes were autistic, she criticizes their parents for sending them to a mainstream school where they would be known as a retard. She has no idea what options were available to those parents or why they made the choices they did. Some special needs kids are better off in special schools but they shouldn’t automatically be sent there for fears of bullying in the mainstream.  If they do end up being bullied maybe it’s the behavior of the bullies that should be criticized, rather than the behavior of the parents.

When speculating on the reasons behind the rise of the incidence of autism, she suggests that people with autistic traits who in previous times would have been unable to find mates are now reproducing and she adds in “Thanks, Tinder!” That’s disturbing in the same way wanting to sterilize her son is disturbing. At least she didn’t say “Thanks, Obama”?

When discussing autistic students at Cambridge objecting to research being done in to pre-natal genetic testing for autism, on the grounds that it would lead to eugenics, Newman says that it is not the place of the autistic people who attend Cambridge University  to speak for the autistic people who are sitting alone in their rooms twirling objects.

First of all, if pre-natal testing for autism ever becomes possible, I seriously doubt it will be possible to tell if an autistic fetus will end up attending Cambridge or sitting alone in their room twirling an object. Second of all, can we please stop acting like autistic people who attend Cambridge and autistic people who sit alone in their room twirling objects are mutually exclusive categories, as if there can never be any overlap between the two? I didn’t attend Cambridge but I did attend university and do you know how much time I’ve spent sitting alone in my room twirling rubber bands? At least as much time as I’ve spent attending university.

She reveals that she and her husband (who she thinks is on the autism spectrum) are happily married but have always lived in separate apartments. That seemed strange to me but I can’t blame her husband for not wanting to live with her. She sounds insufferable.

Her reaction to criticism of her book did nothing to improve my impression of her. In response to accusations that the book is damaging to autistic people she said “I didn’t write it for them.” Sounds like she could use some lessons in empathy and theory of mind.

When she heard that people who didn’t appear to have read the book were leaving one star reviews of it on Amazon, she tried to get them taken down. Suck it up, Buttercup. You put your writing out there and people are free to criticize it. People leave reviews of books they haven’t read or finished all the time and proof of purchase has never been required. She claims that those people who are objecting to quotes from her book don’t understand them because they haven’t read them in context. Well, I have read them in context and it doesn’t make them any better. I’m sure if those people read your book, they would be more horrified, not less.

Within the autism community there’s a big divide between autistic adults who are deemed to be high functioning and parents of autistic children who are deemed to be low functioning, mainly over the issues of wanting a cure for autism and how those parents talk about their children. I feel like I’m more sympathetic to parents of autistic children than most but I still draw the line somewhere and Judith Newman crossed it.

Still, I’m glad I read this book. In addition to the good aspects of it I mentioned before it’s inspired me to start working on a story of my own of a similar nature ( I got the original idea for it from Life, Animated, another memoir written by the parent of an autistic boy that has a similar theme to To Siri with Love.) I’m not rich or famous like Judith Newman is (it’s a shame that it’s usually only the people with power, prestige and connections who get their voices heard) so my story won’t be as widely read or acclaimed as hers is but it also won’t be as widely criticized. I’ll try to write about autism in a more accurate and sensitive manner than she did.

Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is the true story of a lawyer’s work to win justice for those who have been failed by our justice system, especially death row inmates.  For as long as I can remember I have been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I think it is inhumane, abhorrent and has no place in a society that calls itself civilized. When I read this book I needed no convincing that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished but if I did need convincing it surely would have swayed me.  I feel that anyone who reads this book and still thinks the death penalty is acceptable is much more of a monster than any of the death row inmates profiled in it.

One of the reasons I am opposed to the death penalty is that there is the possibility of executing someone who is innocent and death is irreversible.  I assumed that executing an innocent person is rare but that one innocent person executed is one too many. I assumed that when an innocent person was placed on death row it was the result of a terrible mistake. This book showed me just how wrong I was in that regard.

It’s said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. This book presented both the horrifying death row statistics and the horrifying individual stories of death row inmates. For every nine people on death row that are executed, one is exonerated. The story that gets the most attention in this book is that of Walter McMillian. He was put on death row for a murder that there was no evidence he committed and plenty of evidence he didn’t.

Over a dozen people could vouch that he was at a fish fry when the murder took place. Another criminal who was a notorious liar was coerced by the police to claim he’d seen Walter at the scene of the crime in exchange for a lightening of his own sentence. The story he spun made no sense and was full of holes but the police were feeling pressure to solve the case and Walter was an easy target because he was a black man who’d had an affair with a white woman. The town where Walter lived, where he was unjustly condemned due to the color of his skin, was a town that took pride in being the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Apparently the irony was lost on its residents.

The death penalty is disproportionately applied to African Americans, who are condemned by juries that are disproportionately white. Other groups of people who are vulnerable to the death penalty include the poor, the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. When you look at capital punishment in that light it seems like a form of eugenics.

There are a lot of great quotes in this book. Regarding the classicism inherent in our justice system, Stevenson says the system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. He says capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment. So much depends upon a good lawyer and those who can’t afford to hire a good lawyer end up paying with their lives.

McMillian’s story is just one of many horror stories in this books. There’s the story of the woman who gets 10 years in prison for three bad checks to buy her children Christmas presents, the woman who is sentenced to life in prison for supposedly killing a stillborn baby that she couldn’t afford prenatal care for, all those children from abusive homes who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-homicidal crimes.

The saddest case of all is that of Jimmy Dill. He was an intellectually impaired man from an abusive home who was imprisoned after being involved in a shooting. When the shooting victim died nine months later as a result of poor medical care, he was sentenced to death. Bryan tried repeatedly to get Jimmy’s sentence overturned but ultimately he was unable to. On the night of his execution Jimmy spoke with a stutter to tell Bryan how grateful he was to him for trying to save his life. As Bryan listened to Jimmy speak, the tears rolled down his cheeks. As I read his account of Jimmy’s last words to him, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

The other part of the book that made me cry was the story of Avery Jenkins, a mentally ill death row inmate who had been severely abused as a child. Bryan had learned that his own career, education and socioeconomic status could not protect him from racism. Because of his skin color, a policeman had treated him like a criminal for listening  to music in his car in his own neighborhood.  When he entered the courtroom as a lawyer the judge would assume he was the defendant on trial. When he went to meet with Avery at the prison he noticed a car full of racist symbols and slogans that referenced cotton picking. When he entered the prison a guard made sure Bryan knew the truck was his. He then proceeded to talk to him in a threatening, aggressive manner and subject him to a humiliating strip search even though it was against protocol.

Avery experienced psychotic episodes and his speech was often incoherent. Every time Bryan met with him he would ask for a chocolate milkshake and Bryan would have to tell him he was sorry but it was against prison regulations. When Bryan appealed Avery’s death sentence in court he talked about the horrific abuse he had endured in foster care.  The next time he went to meet with Avery at the prison he was surprised to be greeted by the guard in a friendly manner and not to be subjected to a strip search. The guard told him that he’d listened to what he’d said about Avery’s experiences in foster care. He said that he’d been abused in foster care himself and he hadn’t thought anyone had it as bad as he did. He also said that on the way back from the hearing he had bought Avery a chocolate milkshake.

Ultimately Just Mercy is a book that is as touching and uplifting as it is shocking and horrifying. Amidst all the misery, cruelty and unjust treatment, there is compassion, insight and mercy. Mercy and compassion are ultimately what are needed to fix our broken justice system. Bryan Stevenson would tell you that our broken justice system is a symptom of our broken selves. Through his work with the incarcerated, Stevenson came to realize that we are all broken. Sometimes we are broken by our own choices, sometimes by circumstances we never would have chosen but we have all hurt and been hurt by others. He realized that his motivation for doing the work that he did was his own brokenness  He wanted justice for his clients and would do anything to get it for them but although the ways in which he and his clients had been broken were different, he could not pretend that their struggles were disconnected from his own.

Of all the great quotes in this book, the one that spoke to me the most was “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If you lie, you’re more than just a liar, if you steal, you’re more than just a thief and if you kill someone you’re more than just a murderer. Too often when someone commits a crime, I see and hear others speak of the accused in scathing categorical terms, as though the second they emerged from the womb they grabbed a physical or metaphorical weapon, committed a heinous crime and that is the sum total of their life.

And that’s where my own brokenness comes in. I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve done plenty of things in my life that I’m not proud of and I’d hate for anyone to reduce me to those things. I spent 6 weeks in a mental hospital diagnosed with a mental illness I didn’t have. Walter McMillian spent 6 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  The other day I was walking through the city reeling from an encounter I’d had with a stranger that had made me think bout how different my autism made me from everyone else, how hard it made my life, how it caused people to make false assumptions about me.  I saw a mural on a building that featured a picture of a woman along with her name. She was listed as being a mural painter, an architecture major, a former prison inmate and an advocate for prison reform.

The sign also said that the U.S. contains 5 % of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Black people are similarly overrepresented in the prison system in proportion to their population.  I’ve come to realize that sometimes the difference between those who are imprisoned and those who are free does not come down to a difference between their behavior or their morality but a difference between the shade of their skin color and the size of their bank account.

Bryan Stevenson says that we seek to to crush, imprison and kill the most vulnerable among us, not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tougher, less broken. We’d be better off using our brokenness as a source of compassion and mercy.  The measure of a society’s character and commitment to justice is not how it treats those who are rich, powerful and respected but how it treats the most vulnerable. We all suffer when members of our society are treated poorly and we all benefit when mercy is shown, for all of us need mercy at some point and mercy is a healing transformative force that allows us to see things we would not see otherwise.

A common argument in favor of the death penalty is that some people deserve to die and some people don’t deserve to be shown mercy. Stevenson says mercy is most potent when it is directed at the undeserving and that the question is not whether people  deserve to die but whether we deserve to kill.

The answer to the question of whether we deserve to kill is a resounding no. The answer to the question of whether I would recommend this book is a resounding yes.

Some books I’ve read this year

It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis)-As we all know, unfortunately it did happen here. This is a novel written many years before Trump came to power about a president named Berzelius Windrip who bears a remarkable similarity to Trump. He even decides he wants to live at a hotel rather than at The White House. The results of Buzz Windrip’s presidency are disastrous just as the results of Trump’s presidency have been and will be disastrous. Many people are killed or put in concentration camps as a result of going against Buzz. I hope it doesn’t come to that with Trump but I wouldn’t put it entirely out of the realm of possibility. Things don’t end too well for Buzz or his supporters either and I’m sure that’s how it will go for Trump and his supporters too. There were no winners in the 2016 election.

In the beginning of the book the protagonist is reluctant to take part in the resistance against Buzz Windrip but by the end of the book he has become one of the leaders of the resistance. Resistance is what we need in our real world that is unfortunately emulating this novel and fortunately I’m continuing to see a lot of people resisting against all the bullshit of Trump and his administration.  While I’m not an active member of the resistance, I am rather fond of my Resist t-shirt that features a picture of Smokey the Bear (brought to me courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Since this was billed to me as being representative of Trump and the clusterfuck that surrounded his election, I found myself frustrated that certain relevant points pertaining to it were not included in this book but I had to remind myself that the author didn’t actually intend for it to be representative of him, as it was written before he was even born.  I’ve heard this is not one of Sinclair Lewis’s best books but I haven’t read any of his other books and I liked this one well enough.

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)– This YA novel is a quick read. Some editions include illustrations. The plot concerns a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and the monster that comes to visit him. This book made good use of allegory. Fantasy and reality were well blended. The painful, complicated, conflicting emotions that are experienced when a loved one is dying were explained in a way that young readers could understand.

A friend asked me if I thought the book was too predictable. I didn’t think it was too predictable. The parts that were predictable were that way because they had to be and there were parts that defied expectations. I liked the part where the monster told the boy a fairy tale in which it seemed pretty obvious who the good guy was and who the bad guy was but the boy was shocked when the monster punished the person he thought of as the good guy rather than the person he thought of as evil. The monster then explained why the man he thought of as good deserved to be punished.

Lily and the Octopus (Steven Rowley)– After I read a book about a human dying of cancer I decided to read a book about a dog dying of cancer. I was drawn to the book because the dog had the same name as my dog.  I didn’t realize that the octopus in the title symbolized a tumor growing on the dog’s head. Like A Monster Calls, this book makes use of metaphor and allegory, blends fantasy and reality.  It’s a sweet story and it tugs at your heartstrings, especially if you’ve  ever loved and lost a canine friend. Make sure to have plenty of tissues handy when you read this.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)– I read my first Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few years ago and I was blown away by it. Ever since then I’ve been vowing to read more Neil Gaiman books but I didn’t get around to it until this year. I chose American Gods because I’d heard good things about it and there’s a show based on it coming out soon.

I find it kind of challenging to describe this book. The plot involves a guy who has just been released from prison and experienced the death of his wife taking a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious conman. They then embark on an epic supernatural journey that involves the old gods of mythology trying to fight against the new ‘American Gods’ that are taking their place. These new gods reflect America’s preoccupation with things such as celebrities, media, technology and drugs.

This is a book full of symbolism, a lot of which I’m sure went completely over my head. It is a blend of fantasy, mystery and horror. I don’t like any of those genres on their own but when they’re all blended together in a literary way, it works for me. I found this book creepy and unsettling. Since I’m a morbid person I can appreciate a book that leaves me feeling that way. Neil Gaiman is an author unlike any other author I’ve read.

My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor)– This book was assigned to me by my therapist. It is a memoir written by a neuroscientist who experienced a stroke. Given her profession, she obviously had some special insights in to what happened to her neurologically. While reading this book it was often unclear to me whether these were insights she had while she was having/recovering from the stroke or insights she arrived at after the fact.

I had no idea that a stroke could be in any way pleasurable so I was shocked by the feelings of deep euphoria she experienced when the stroke hit. She described it as a feeling of being at one with the universe, of there being no boundaries between herself and the rest of the world. While I would never wish to have a stroke, that does sound like a pretty cool feeling that I wouldn’t mind experiencing. I think the closest I ever came was that time I was on a (legally prescribed) Ketamine trip.

The euphoric feelings were a result of the damage the stroke did to the left hemisphere of her brain. Before she got into the details of her stroke in the book she spent some time describing the differences between the right and left brain. Among those differences is that the right brain tends to be peaceful, accepting, interconnected with the world and living in the moment while the left brain tends to be judgmental, focused on the past and views the self as a separate entity.

Of course the left brain also performs some vital functions and the stroke left Jill Bolte Taylor severely impaired. It took her 8 years to recover. The decision to recover was a conscious choice for her. I applaud her decision because my lazy butt would have been very tempted to remain impaired and floating on cloud 9, rather than put in the hard work towards recovery and get back all the negative emotions associated with the left brain.

One of the main reasons Dr. Taylor decided to recover was that she wanted to share the insights she had gained from her stroke to help not just other stroke victims but people in general. She believes people can lead  more peaceful, fulfilled lives if they allow themselves to tune in to the propensities of their right brain.

She does provide some valuable insights. She noted that while recovering from the stroke she was drawn towards people who gave off positive energy and who focused on her accomplishments rather than on what she could not do, that those were the kind of people who were instrumental in her recovery. Whether you’re recovering from a stroke or not, it’s best to surround yourself with those kind of people and limit contact as much as possible with negative people who point out your faults.

The insight she provided that I found the most valuable and that spoke to me the most was when she pointed out that when a negative thought or feeling floods the brain, it only has a natural biological lifespan of about 30 seconds or so. If it persists after that it’s because the person is choosing to focus on it and we can learn not to focus on it, to shift our focus to something else. God knows I have a tendency to perseverate on negative thoughts and emotions. After reading this book, now more so than ever, when I experience a thought or emotion that is causing me distress, I make an effort to say to myself “Enough already, brain!  Let’s stop thinking about this for now.”

Book Review: Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

This is a memoir in which a Harvard educated woman writes about the time period when she was pregnant with her son who has Down Syndrome and the spiritual awakening she experienced. This is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It was recommended to me by a friend. Someone in my mom’s book club decided she wasn’t going to read the book club’s selection because it wasn’t the kind of book she was interested in and I thought to myself “Way to miss the point of a book club, lady!”My friend and I have an exclusive 2 person book club that is open only to the densest most literal readers so even though the book isn’t my cup of tea, I decided to read it.

A book about having a kid with a disability is actually right up my alley but the spiritual/supernatural element is not. I’m a skeptic who doesn’t believe in that kind of thing. I ended up having mixed feelings about the book. I liked it more than I thought I would but I also disliked it for the reasons I thought I would. When the author reflected on having a child with a disability and society’s attitudes towards it, I found it interesting and insightful. When she got in to the spiritual/supernatural stuff she lost me. I was particularly unimpressed when she decided not to go to the hospital while she was bleeding, vomiting and had a high fever because she had a feeling the magical Japanese puppets in her head had her covered.

This woman and her husband were both in academia at Harvard and their world was a very high pressure, achievement oriented one.  It was a world in which you were expected to take business trips from Massachusetts to Japan every other week, to put your children on waiting lists for elite preschools before they were even conceived and to attend class while your wife was in labor.

Such an existence sounds awful and intolerable to me. It is certainly worth speaking out against the kind of people, society and institutions that would perpetuate, encourage and demand such an existence. I see that kind of thing in the school district I attended as a child. Having straight A’s, perfect SAT scores and a zillion extracurricular activities are valued above all else. About a year ago changes were put in place in the district to decrease the pressure on students as it was noted that it was taking a toll on their mental health. Some people were upset by the changes and worried that it would decrease the students’ chances of getting in to elite colleges but I was among those who applauded them.

I do not blame Martha Beck for having a grudge against Harvard considering what it put her and her husband through but at times I think she took that grudge too far and reading what essentially felt like a revenge piece was off putting. I do not doubt that the atmosphere at Harvard can be rather cut throat and unpleasant. I do not doubt that there are a lot of unpleasant, insufferable people at Harvard but I do doubt that everyone at Harvard is like that. As much as it fills us with envy to think that there are some people who “have it all”, I imagine there are people at Harvard who manage to be kind and compassionate while also being demanding and ambitious, people who manage to relax and have fun while also being hard workers, people who manage to appreciate the simple things in life while also keeping their sights on lofty goals.

Yet to hear Martha Beck tell it, you’d think everyone at Harvard was snooty and obnoxious, completely focused on material accomplishments, while neglecting the really important things in life. When she wrote about how wonderful one of her professors was, I was glad to see her acknowledging that not everyone at Harvard is evil. Then she said she didn’t think it was any coincidence that that professor quit teaching at Harvard six months later. My eyes, they rolled.

When Martha found out that the fetus she was carrying had Down Syndrome, many people pressured her to have an abortion. The issue of aborting/carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome is a controversial one, as is the issue of abortion in general. My controversial opinion is that any woman has the right decide for herself to have or not have an abortion for any reason. I was glad to read that Martha Beck was of a similar opinion. She resented the people who shamed her for not aborting for Down Syndrome and she realized that shaming a woman for aborting for Down Syndrome is just as bad. There’s a part of the book where she describes medical professionals who do the former as well as those who do the latter. She essentially says that those people can shove it up their asses. That was a rather satisfying moment.

There are several satisfying moments in the book. As much as Martha Beck irritated me at times, she’s smart, she’s funny and she’s a good writer.  And the book’s essential message is an important one. There’s something to be said for slowing down in the rat race, taking the time to appreciate the little things in life and realizing before it’s too late that those little things are actually the big things.

I really dislike the idea of intellectually impaired people being little angels who are full of joy and innocence, sent to earth to teach neurotypical people how to live life to the fullest. Martha Beck dislikes this idea too and she speaks out against it but at times I think she’s guilty of perpetuating it.

You know the phrase”Stop and smell the roses”?  There’s a scene where a stranger approaches Martha in a store to compliment her on the fact that her son Adam literally stopped to smell the flowers, while the other kids just walked by them without noticing their fragrance. I would roll my eyes so hard at a scene like that in a novel and it was pretty hard for me not to roll my eyes at it when it was being touted as a true story.

I suppose it’s pretty silly of me to be questioning the veracity of a flower smelling incident, considering all the bizarre supernatural phenomena and eerie coincidences that occur in this book. Of course I’m skeptical of them but in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much whether some divine spiritual presence was at work or there’s a “logical” explanation for the things that happened. The important thing is that the author’s belief in a spiritual presence brought her comfort during a difficult time in her life, that it led her to reevaluate the way she was living her life and to learn valuable lessons that would help her and her son lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

I can relate to some of the experiences Martha Beck had and the realizations she came to. I don’t have kids of my own and I’m not intellectually impaired but I do have a developmental disability and I live a life that’s devoid of many of the accomplishments that many people consider to be essential. Many people consider me to be a loser, a failure, a burden to my parents and society. I often see myself that way.

I’ve realized that a lot of my emotional pain comes from caring about the negative judgments other people make about me, from failing to achieve the things I’ve been taught are important. Martha Beck says that during the time period in which she was expecting Adam she came to question everything Harvard had taught her about what is precious and what is garbage. I’m questioning those things myself and realizing that sometimes even smart, successful, well respected people get it wrong.

This realization has been aided and exemplified not just by this book but by the friend who recommended it to me. She said that she doesn’t think of me as a loser because I live with my parents and don’t have a job. She realizes some people think anyone in those circumstances is a loser but she rejects the idea that everyone needs to fit in to neat little prescribed boxes in order to have value. And, really, the kind of people who feel the need to judge me, to make cruel comments about me,to define worth by degrees from prestigious universities and money from high paying jobs are missing out on some of the important things in life. Maybe they should read Expecting Adam.

A Book I Read in 2016: Life, Animated

The 26th book I read in 2016 was Life, Animated by Ron Suskind. This book is written by the father of an autistic boy. It tells the story of how his son Owen learned to communicate with people and understand the world through lessons drawn from animated Disney movies,which he has an intense love for. The problem with many books by the parents of autistic children is that the parents are not professional writers and thus their books are not very well written. Ron Suskind is an award winning journalist so this book is well written. The story itself is pretty amazing. It warmed my heart and it broke my heart. I found the way Owen was able to connect with people and learn about life through Disney characters fascinating.

I read a New York Times review of this book that caused an intense negative emotional reaction in me because of my own personal issues but my personal issues aside, I found the way the last part of it was written to be rather obnoxious.  First it said that one of the flaws of the book is that there’s only so much talk about Disney characters a neurotypical reader can cheerfully take. Well, I guess since I’m not a neurotypical reader that wasn’t a problem for me.It said that the other flaw was that the book didn’t have the perfect happy fairy tale ending one would expect considering it centered around Disney characters. The review ended by saying that in real life, unlike in Disney, only some dreams come true.

Maybe I’m just smarter and more perceptive than the average reader but I was aware that real life is not like Disney before the reviewer so helpfully pointed that out and I harbored no illusions that this book would turn out like a Disney movie just because it dealt with Disney characters. Before coming to the brilliant conclusion that real life is not like a Disney movie, the reviewer pointed out that Owen has not achieved his dream of becoming a famous animator, his romantic relationship is unlikely to lead where a parent might hope, his time away at “college” does not correspond to what we think of as the typical college experience and he might never make it fully on his own.

So, at 25 Owen does not have a job that makes him rich and famous, his first romantic relationship probably won’t end in marriage, he has not received a bachelors degree from an accredited university that hosts a lot of drunken frat parties and he might need some help to get by in life. How very tragic. God knows there aren’t plenty of neurotypical 25 year olds in that same boat. There’s just nothing sadder than living a life that in some way deviates from the typical expectations that certain other people who are not living your life have! Then again, I don’t recall any of those Disney heroes going to college…

In case you couldn’t tell, that review hit a nerve with me. The movie did too. I didn’t like it nearly as much as I liked the book. It was presented mostly as a coming of age story and didn’t go in to great detail about the ways in which Owen used Disney characters to make sense of the social world like the book did. The movie also seemed rather exploitative of Owen and his girlfriend. Watching some of the recorded scenes between and about them made me uncomfortable. Owen’s girlfriend breaks up with him and I can’t help but wonder if the production of the movie had something to do with it. If my boyfriend’s brother was talking to him about french kissing me and those conversations were being broadcast to the world, I would have been out of there too.

Anyway, even though I wasn’t all that pleased with the movie or with some of the reviews of the book, I was very pleased with the book itself. Even though Owen is on a different end of the autism spectrum than I’m on, I could relate to a lot of his feelings and experiences. The book has inspired me to write a series of blogs about how I used animals to connect with the human social world but I have to warn you, my story doesn’t have a perfect, happy, Disney fairy tale ending wither.

The Books I Read in 2016: Part 3

21. A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)- I read this book because there was a movie coming out starring Tom Hanks based on it but I still haven’t seen the movie. The book was okay. The plot and the characters didn’t do much for me but I do have to give the book credit for the way it made me feel at the end. The book ends with a failed business deal. In the grand scheme of all the tragedies that have occurred in literature, a failed business deal is nothing but somehow this book managed to make me feel sadder about a failed business deal than other books have made me feel about untimely deaths. The other thing that sicks out in my mind about this book is a hilarious dirty camel joke. To be honest I’m not even 100% sure that I read that joke in this book. I might just be associating it with this book because it takes place in Saudi Arabia and there are a lot of camels in Saudi Arabia. Regardless, I’m finding myself amused by a dirty camel joke right now.

22. Me Before You (JoJo Meyes)-Usually my problem with liking a book is that I don’t like it as much as I want to like it but this was a case of me liking a book more than I wanted to like it. It was a fluff romance that was not particularly well written nor were the plot or characters particularly well developed. To top it all off it expressed ideas about physical disability that many people found offensive in a similar way to how I found the ideas expressed about autism in Love Anthony offensive. Yet in spite of all that, I liked it. There was something about it that was charming, touching and compelling. Voluntary euthanasia of the disabled was probably too heavy and complex of a subject to be tackled by a romance author who calls herself JoJo. I have some mixed and conflicting feelings about euthanasia. In theory I think everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether they live or die and no one else should be able to decide for them but in actuality euthanasia for reasons other than fatal illness makes me sad and uncomfortable. I felt sad and uncomfortable when Will made that choice in this book but I can understand why someone in his position might make such a choice and respect his right to make it. I saw the movie and had similar feelings as I had about the book. Objectively it was not a very good movie but I enjoyed watching it plus Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin are just so cute. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not understand the title Me Before You until I saw it explained on Goodreads. I read Me Before You as putting yourself before your partner in a relationship and that never really made sense to me in the context of the story. You’d think that the sequel being called After You would have clued me in to the fact that Me Before You means “how I was before I met you” but no, I really am that dense.

23. After You (JoJo Meyes)- I heard a lot of people who liked Me Before You say that they hated After You and that it ruined everything. I didn’t think it was that bad or at least it wasn’t much worse than Me Before You. Yes, the plot was contrived but it’s a romance novel, what do you expect? I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Me Before You but that was partially because reading the two books back to back made me get sick of the character of Louisa.

24. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)-I can sum up this book in one sentence: War is hell. If anyone is under the impression that there is anything glamorous or desirable about war, this book should disabuse them of that notion. This book was recommended to me by my brother. He warned me that it was very gruesome and violent. I wasn’t put off by the violence in this case because it was intrinsic to the plot rather than gratuitous or sensationalized. I think I found the psychological toll the war took on the soldiers in this book even more disturbing than the physical toll it took. The last lines of this book are haunting.

25. H is for Hawk (Helen McDonald)- This is the award winning  memoir of a woman who after her father’s death adopts a hawk and trains it in falconry. When my mom’s friend saw me reading this book she was baffled and fascinated by it because she didn’t understand how a book about training a hawk could be good. It was very good. There are a lot of grief memoirs out there but I’ve never read one quite like this one. It’s combined with nature writing and some of the prose is beautiful. Training a hawk is not a traditional method of coping with grief but it seemed to work for Helen McDonald. I didn’t know much about falconry and thought of it as a mostly dead sport. It was interesting to read about and I’m glad it helped the author but I do find it kind of ethically questionable. She says that a hawk is not a pet and will never be fully tame. Why does a wild animal need to be kept in captivity so a human can have the pleasure of hunting with it? It seems better to just let them be wild, watch them from afar and enjoy the company of domesticated animals. A lot of this memoir is devoted to analyzing a memoir about falconry written a long time ago by an author named T.H. White.  He had some issues to deal with including being gay at a time and place when that was considered unacceptable and training a hawk seemed to be therapeutic for him as well. I enjoyed reading about his memoir from Helen McDonald’s perspective but I don’t have much desire to read his memoir in its entirety. Well, if it’s on sale as one of the Kindle daily deals I’ll probably buy it. I’m a sucker for those deals.)

The Books I Read in 2016: Part 2

A continuation of the list of books I read in 2016 and remember, there will be spoilers!

11. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino)-This is a book within a book within a book written in a postmodern style. I enjoyed reading it because it was such a unique and entertaining reading experience. It offered some good insights in to the meaning of the experience of reading and writing as well but of course I’ve forgotten what they were.

12. Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)-This is about a young woman named Ifemelu who immigrates to America from Nigeria. She settles in the Trenton/Princeton area, which is the area I’m from. I don’t see New Jersey represented much in fiction so that made the book appealing to me but it was not its main selling point. I found the story line mediocre but I really enjoyed the excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog. She had some very wise insights in to race and racism in American society. In one of the blogs I wrote about Donald Trump, I meant to quote a blog by a Trump supporter who said “I’m a white woman and I believe racism died out years ago” but I forgot to mention it (or maybe I blocked it out of my memory because it was so jaw droppingly stupid and offensive.) I remembered it again when I thought of Americanah. I’d love to see what Ifemelu would have had to say to that blogger. One of Ifemelu’s blogs dealt with how some people seem to think racists are just people who walk around in KKK robes lynching black people but in reality racism also manifests itself in other ways that are more subtle but still harmful. Some great quotes of hers were “Racism never should have happened in the first place so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it” and “Expecting African Americans to be fine now that slavery has been abolished is like setting a prisoner free with no money for the bus fare to get anywhere.” I was a bit disappointed when towards the end of the novel Ifemelu has an affair with a married man but no one’s perfect.

13. Betrayal- This book is a gathering of the investigative journalism that uncovered the child molestation scandal in the Catholic church and it is fucking horrifying. For years the Catholic church knew that their priests were molesting little boys and they just let it happen. They tried to cover it up and if someone found out about it, their biggest concern was covering their own asses, with very little concern shown for the victims or potential victims. They preached all about being a good person and condemned people for their sins while they were perpetuating one of the most heinous sins anyone could possibly commit. This book was narrated in a detached reporter kind of way so it didn’t go in to much detail about the emotional impact on the victims. I can only imagine how traumatic it must have been for them. The findings in this book formed the basis for the movie Spotlight. I tried to watch Spotlight but I fell asleep halfway through.

14. When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanthi) – This is the memoir of a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 36. Luckily this is not an instance where I have to choose between lying and saying that a book written by someone who suffered and died was good or feeling like a jerk for saying that a book by someone who suffered and died was bad. I can truthfully say that that this was a good, well written book. Paul Kalanthi was a brilliant, talented, compassionate man and his untimely death was a great loss for the world. It really was cruel of fate to give him lung cancer at such a young age when he’d never even smoked. One part of the book that’s stuck with me is the part where he and his wife are talking about having a baby. His wife says “Don’t you think having a baby would make your death more difficult and painful?” Paul replies “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” He then went on to say that he didn’t think life should be about avoiding suffering. This book was short and I wanted more from it but Paul Kalanthi died while he was in the middle of writing it. May he rest in peace and may his legacy live on.

15. A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)- This book is a good test of whether or not you have a soul. If you read this book and you don’t cry or you aren’t at least moved by it then you have no soul and you have no heart either. Today a Facebook friend posted a status asking what the best book you read this year was and I chose this one because it had such a strong emotional impact on me. The book spans a few decades and tells the story of Laila and Mariam, two women living in Afghanistan. They live through some very tough times filled with war, violence, poverty, misogyny, abuse and the rise of the Taliban. Their paths cross when they both become the wives of one man, a very horrible man who thinks women are his property, existing only to please him and bear him sons. Speaking of bearing sons, a scene that made me cringe in horror is when Laila has to undergo a C-section with no anesthesia because the hospital doesn’t have any. That was probably less painful for her than having to put her daughter in an orphanage though. Through it all Mariam (who is unable to bear children of her own) is there for her. Although their relationship gets off to a rocky start, they develop a strong bond with one another. Their bond is put to the ultimate test when in a fit of rage, their husband beats and chokes Laila very hard. Realizing that if she doesn’t intervene, their husband will kill Laila, Mariam kills him in order to save her. The scene that follows between Laila and Mariam nearly killed me emotionally. It reminds me of the “Tell me about the rabbits, George” scene from Of Mice and Men, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Mariam takes all the blame for killing the husband and I wanted to kill the judge who said to her “I want to be merciful to you but I’m going to have to sentence you to death.” When the book ends Laila is with a man who treats her well and is pregnant with her third child. She’s debating what to name it if it’s a boy but if it’s a girl she’s already decided what the name will be. *Cue the tears.*

16. Blindness (Jose Saramongo)- This book was amazingly creepy and haunting. Its about an epidemic of blindness that suddenly and inexplicably sweeps across a city. The first victims of it are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital. Soon enough all hell breaks loose as the fabric that binds society together falls apart and humans reveal themselves as the savage beasts that they are. It reminds me of Lord of the Flies but better and less boring. I’ve seen people complain about Saramongo’s writing style, which uses very little punctuation. It does take some getting used to and sometimes it can be hard to tell who’s speaking but I didn’t mind it too much. In general I have little tolerance for missing/incorrect punctuation but in this case it comes across as an art form, not just being sloppy.

17. Seeing (Jose Saramongo)- This is the sequel to Blindness. It takes place a few years after Blindness ends. At the end of Blindness everyone regains their vision as quickly and inexplicably as they lost it, except for the main character’s wife, who for some reason never lost her vision in the first place. This book centers around an election in which 80% of the votes cast are blank ballots. This greatly disturbs government officials. They suspect that since the doctor’s wife didn’t lose her vision, she might be behind the casting of the blank ballots. Why they thought there was any connection between the two was never made clear to me but maybe that’s the point. I’m sure that with corrupt government officials, apathetic voters and disappointing election in this story we could draw some parallels to the clusterfuck that was the 2016 U.S election. I mentioned in my previous blog entry that I’m a morbid person who tends to prefer sad endings over happy endings but the ending of this book was a little too bleak, even for me. I kept thinking “Please don’t kill the dog, please don’t kill the dog.” Yeah, it doesn’t end well for the dog. It doesn’t end well for the humans either but I know I’m not alone in being more disturbed by dog deaths than human ones.

18. A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson)-This is the sequel to Life After Life. Actually it’s more of a companion book than a sequel. Life After Life follows the lives of a woman named Ursula. Her life begins and ends over and over again in various different ways. This book follows the life of Ursula’s brother as he serves in the war, gets married, has a kid, gets old and does various other things. I liked the character of Teddy. I couldn’t stand his daughter Viola though. She was just insufferable. Some people see unlikable characters as a flaw in a book but I don’t. Some characters aren’t meant to be likable and god knows there are plenty of unlikable characters in real life. When Teddy’s wife was gone for long periods of time and lying about her whereabouts, I thought along with Teddy that she was having an affair so I was shocked and saddened when she revealed that she had brain cancer. I heard there were a lot of ‘Easter eggs’ in this book that referenced the first book but I think I missed most of them.

19.Love Anthony (Lisa Genova)-I read Lisa Genova’s book Still Alice, which was about Alzheimers’s and I loved it so a book about autism by this author seemed like something that would be right up my alley. What a disappointment it was. I gave it the title of worst book I read this year. Objectively it may have been better than those 5th wave books but this book was bad in a rather offensive way and I was expecting so much more from it. It was as much of a trainwreck as Mariah Carey’s New Years Eve performance was and just like that performance, this book made me cringe in second hand embarrassment for its author. The premise is that a woman has an autistic son named Anthony who dies suddenly and the woman is left wondering what the meaning of his life is. Then some other woman channels Anthony’s spirit or something like that and writes a book from his perspective. This woman ends up crossing paths with Anthony’s mother and sharing the book with her. Through reading the book, Anthony’s mother learns that the purpose of her son’s life was to teach her the true meaning of love. Most kids are easy to love but since Anthony was autistic she had to work harder to love him. Through writing this book the second woman woman learns that she must take back her cheating husband because Anthony has taught her that you have to love people even when they’re not perfect. Ew, ew, ew. The idea that autistic people exist in order to teach neurotypical people the true meaning of love by being difficult to love is incredibly gross and patronizing. Lisa Genova did some research on autism for this book. It’s too bad she didn’t do enough research to realize how offensive the ideas she expresses in this book are to autistic people and those who love them.

20.The World According to Garp (John Irving)-I loved this book, just I loved the other two books I read by John Irving. This book is such a blend of tragedy and comedy. It has some of the most quirky, interesting, unforgettable characters and situations in modern literature. For starters there’s a nurse who rapes a comatose patient in order to conceive her son, a guy who loses a quarter of his penis in an unfortunate blow job/car accident, a transgender football player and a group of women who deliberately cut off their own tongues as part of a social protest movement. Then of course there’s T.S. Garp, a flawed but lovable character. It really hurt me to see Garp die in the end. It was doubly painful in the movie because Garp was played by Robin Williams. I wasn’t too affected by any of 2016’s celebrity deaths but when I read that Robin Williams died I gasped.