November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker). You might find something you like.
- NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism. He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations. Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.” Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades. It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift. In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.” The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987. One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis. It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years. Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it. Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it. There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side. One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it). Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom. Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself. Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book. Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes. The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with. The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb). I could barely put it down. The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop. The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation. Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before). He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research. What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway? Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290). I can’t recommend this book enough.
- When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history. It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting. First, she knows a lot about history and literature. Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience. It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect. There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful. For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93). Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need. It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading. I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading. She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written. I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
- My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran. The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir. To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed: “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo. Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time). I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book. It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized. The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time. Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse. One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army. He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person. In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life. He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone. It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century. I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war. Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not. Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well. [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
- Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time. I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base. Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development. These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection). For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done. Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill. But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men). I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
- Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author. Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference. Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist. Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression. Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from. They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place. Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937. Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party. Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better. She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past. It’s all quite mysterious to Davita. As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists. There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one. I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).