The Reason I Jump

Have you read “The Reason I Jump”, the book written by the autistic child If so, what were your thoughts about it?

My wife first brought this book to my attention last month, and shortly thereafter I saw the Daily Show interview with David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and translator of The Reason I Jump. I swiped my wife’s Kindle and read it in roughly 24 hours.

I am of two minds.

On the one hand, I found it interesting and engrossing. I did not enjoy it, exactly — the author, Naoki Higashida, talks at great lengths about what a burden he feels he is on others — But I am glad to have read it.

On the other hand, I have some concerns about the book. For instance Higashida often speaks on behalf of all people autism, as if they are of a single mind. Here is a typical excerpt (emphasis added):

Why do you memorize train timetables and calendars?

Because it’s fun! We get a real kick out of numbers, us people with autism. Numbers are fixed, unchanging things. The number 1, for example, is only ever, ever the number 1. That simplicity, that clearness, it’s so comforting to us …  Invisible things like human relationships and ambiguous expressions, however, these are difficult for us people with autism to get our heads around.

It is my belief, as I’ve stated here before, that very little can be generalized about people with autism, as they are as distinct from one another as they are from their neurotypical peers. I don’t begrudge Higashida for writing in this style, but worry that readers will assume that this one child’s experiences are universal.

Indeed David Mitchell, who has a son with autism, seems to view Higashida as something of a spokesman. Here is what he wrote in an article for The Guardian:

I felt as if my own son was responding to my own queries about what it’s like to live inside an autistic mind. Why do you have meltdowns? How do you view memory, time and beauty? For the first time I had answers, not just theories.

I have no qualms about “felt as if my son was responding to my own queries”, but “I had answers” strikes me as worrisome.

Elsewhere in that article Mitchell recounts the famous (at least in special needs circles) Welcome to Holland essay, and says he heard it “via a Jewish friend’s rabbi”; in fact it is very easy to find the actual author of the piece (Emily Kingsley), and odd that Mitchell, a writer himself, wouldn’t bother to look. And according to The New York Times, “[Mitchell and Higashida] have never met in person, and Higashida had almost no involvement in the English edition.” All of this makes me leery of the book’s provenance.

So while I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading The Reason I Jump, I haven’t been quick to recommend it either.

Introduction of The Reason I Jump on NPR | Excerpt from Parade Magazine | Review from The New York Times | Review from the AV Club

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

A few years ago I joined a book club. Not one of those new-fangled Internet discussions groups, but a real-life, old-school book club, where participants gather monthly, eat pita chips, and grudgingly confess to not finishing the novel.

Occasionally the other members are even so foolish as to let me pick the book. Such was the case with this month’s selection, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which I chose for three reason: (a) Neven Mrgan recommended it as part of my 2011 Booklist Project, (b) it is written by David Simon, creator of The Wire, and (c) we desperately needed a non-fiction book as a counterweight to the “contemporary fiction” we have gnawed through thus far in 2012.

The “Year in the Killing Streets” subtitle is literal (well, the “year” part is; no one is killed by a street), with David Simon joining the Baltimore homicide division on January first of 1988 and chronicling their actions for 12 months straight. In this respect Homicide presages the “do a crazy thing for a year” genre so popular as of late, although shadowing a bunch of cops came natural to Simon: he had served as a crime reporter for the The Baltimore Sun for a number of year prior to the project. And Simon is not the focus of the book. Indeed, he fades effortlessly into the background, never once referring to himself while reporting on the force. He does so (as explained in the afterword) by dressing like the detectives, behaving like the detectives, and essentially doing everything short of explicitly identifying himself as a member of the homicide department. As a result, the book is a true “fly on the wall” account, with the reader cast as disembodied spirit, hovering on the edge of the crime scene and eavesdropping on everyone.

If you’ve seen The Wire or NBC’s 90s-era police procedural Homicide (for which this served as the source material), you are already familiar with the tone and cadence of the book. Simon classifies Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as “narrative non-fiction”, which is to say that it reads more like a novel than a criminology textbook. This is accomplished by including copious amounts of dialogue, using narrative arcs as framing devices, and focusing heavily on the “characters”. And, of course, the very premise of the book–a “year in the life”–lends itself to the format, as the passage of days propels the story forward.

Simon picks a few cases upon which to focus, updating readers as to their status over the course of the year; interspersed are shorter vignettes: of “dunkers” (crimes that are solved almost as soon as the cops arrive on the scene), of “stone whodunits” (cases that lack even a trace of usable evidence), and of the officers when they are simply lounging around the office, killing time during an overnight shift. Occasionally shoehorned into the calendar are essays on a variety of tangential subjects. One sidebar discusses the wide-spread fear amongst police departments that interrogations would become useless after Miranda warnings became required, and Simon recounts the many psychological ploys officers subsequently adopted to coax suspects into waiving their rights. Simon documents a criminal trial during another lengthy aside, to show us what happens to these cases when they leave the homicide department and enter the courthouse.

Homicide was not our book club’s most popular selection. The host quit 150 pages in, decrying the repetitiveness of the crime scene descriptions. Another member was unable to attend our meeting, but sent her summary of the book via email:

The topic and characters were interesting enough for an hour or two in front of the TV, but I really did not need to spend countless hours reading a 600 page book. On the other hand, if I ever get pegged for homicide, it will be nice to be prepared for some of the interrogation techniques.

And yet, for all that, we had one of our most interesting and engaging discussions. We talked about the discrepancies between the cinematic portrayal of homicide detectives and those found in the book; we discussed our experiences on jury duty, and how they informed our opinions of the legal system; and we wondered what the two books I have thus far selected for book club said about me. (The first was Columbine by Dave Cullen, another work of narrative non-fiction in which a lot of people got shot. Hm.)

Personally, I found Homicide rivetting, every bit as engrossing as The Wire. It kept me up late on many a night, both the reading of it and the mulling of it over. Fans of David Simon or police procedurals will find plenty to like here, as will anyone interested in a fascinating, exhaustive, and often unsettling portrait of how murders are truly investigated … and sometimes solved.

P.S. Next Monday we’ll we’ll be discussing our next book, The Sisters Brothers, which I read in three days. I liked it quite a bit, and not only because people got shot.

Booklist 2011

Today in the Tournament of Books, it’s Model Home by Eric Puchner vs. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, with the verdict rendered by …. me? Wait, seriously? Who let me do literary criticism?

Well anyway, mistakes were made and I think it’s best we just move on. But I am going to check two novels off my goal of reading 20 recommended books this year. Check! The other check!

I still have two more ToB novels to judge, which brings my required reading for the year up to four. As for the remainder my 2011 Booklist, I asked you for suggestions. Based on your feedback, here are the 25 books I have selected. (Twenty-five rather than twenty so I can abandon a couple of books if I don’t care for them.) Non-fiction books are denoted by an asterisk.

I’ll be reading Anil’s Ghost this week, followed by the ToB Finalists. After that: Black Swan Green. I’ll post a reading schedule for it, and every other book I tackle this year.

Thanks again for your recommendations.

Booklist 2011 – Suggestions Sought

In 2005 I asked readers of defective yeti to pick a year’s worth of books for me. They did, and I wound up reading some of the best literature of my life. I still harken back to the comments that entry when I am in need of a novel to devour.

I haven’t been reading as much in recent years, but for some reason signed on to the 2011 Tournament of Books, becoming a judge for the first time ever. And to that end, I spent January reading my assigned tomes: Model Home by Eric Puchner and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. (The details and brackets of the 2011 ToB were anounced today. check them out.)

From there I moved on to the Uglies quadrilogy, a teen sci-fi series that was recommended by a dear friend. Fun! But these novels each take like a day to complete, and I need to have something lined up if I want to maintain my momentum.

And anyway, reading a score of recommended books is a 2011 Project of mine. So I again turn my lonely eyes to you, Internet. Below are the books I have already selected; please aid me in rounding out the list to an even 20.

The Current List


Recommendations From Comments & Email

Please make recommendations in the comments; I will keep the above list updated as more are suggested. Please second those Candidates that you feel ought to be promoted to the main list (or steer me away from those that you feel I best avoid).

If you want to triangulate your suggestions a bit, I’ll tell you that my favorite books from 2010 were: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (so good!), Little Bee, Zeitoun, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo SHUT UP I LIKED IT.

I’ll review each and every Booklist 2011 novel here on my site. That’s a defective yeti promise. Which means a promise likely to be broken. But I’ll try.

Books: Twilight

Warning: spoilers ahoy.

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

The Queen is also unable to believe I read the whole thing. She reacts to bad literature the way most do to curdled milk, spitting it out the moment she realizes what she is imbibing. And so, 30 pages into Twilight, she tossed the book over to my side of the bed and announced her intention to never touch it again.

So, I read it. And … uhh, whoops.

Twilight, for those who don’t keep their finger on the pulse of teen-girl trends like I do, is the newest YA Lit phenom, selling thirty-seven klonktrillion copies and spawning a movie that promises to be bigger than Jesus and The Beatles and Chez-Its combined. The plot, such as it is, revolves around beautiful (but doesn’t know it!) Bella, who movies to Forks, WA, and meets Edward. (Or possibly “Edwin”–thankfully, the details are already beginning to fade). Ed is exquisite and dark and moody and sensitive and thoughtful and heroic and dangerous and did we already mention exquisite? Did we already mention exquisite 430 times? Great! Only 212 more mentions to go.

If you still want to read the book after seeing this picture, then I’m afraid there’s no helping you.

Ed’s fantastic looks, it turns out, are a result of his deep dark secret which Belle figures out in about 30 minutes: he’s a vampire. He and his family (vampires all) live in Forks because it is perpetually cloudy, thus ensuring that they won’t be exposed to direct sunlight. And it’s imperative that Ed avoid direct sunlight because, when it hits him, he becomes EVEN MORE GORGEOUS. I am so totally not making this up. Also, he’s a good vampire, insofar as he doesn’t eat people. But he really, really wants to. Hence the brooding. And to make matters worse, he wants to eat Belle more than anyone, because apparently she has great smelling blood. But he’s also in love with her, you see. Oh my goodness, what a pickle! It’s as if you or I were dating an apple fritter.

Now, in my day, when you were tormented by Rampant Teen Love™ you lay on your bed in a dark room and listened to a Siouxsie And The Banshees album. But Belle and Ed are even too emo for that, and apparently LiveJournal isn’t available in Forks, so Belle just gushes over Ed’s exquisitability while Ed bellyaches about his colossal case of vampiric blue-balls.

That goes on for about 300 pages. Then, suddenly, the book becomes a thriller. And I’m not kidding about the “suddenly.” New characters are introduced and, just like that, you are reading another novel, all in the space of about two pages. This abrupt shift in tone might have seemed jarring or forced in the hands of a lesser writer, but fortunately Stephanie Meyer eases the transition by having it happen during a game of baseball played by the undead in a remote clearing of a dark woods. So, you know, you hardly even notice that there was NO FORESHADOWING WHATSOEVER.

Anyway, long story short: if you’re a fan of Sweet Valley High books and the line of Goosebumps novels, but wish someone could save you some time by combining them into a single series, then Twilight might be just the book for you! Or you could just watch the first two seasons of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which covers the same ground with twice the aplomb and half the paeans to flawless cheekbones.

Books: The Ruins

There are many qualities for which one might recommend a novel . Profundity. Innovation. Eloquence. Erudition. A book may skimp in one nor two elements, but make up for it by excelling in other areas. Take, for instance, The Ruins by Scott Smith. Here’s a book which, on a scale of 1 to 10, scores about a 2 in every conceivable category, except for “readability” where it clocks in at about a 27.

Seriously, this book is like a 48-hour meth addiction. I bought in from a grocery store one morning when I had a one hour wait before me at had forgotten to bring a book along; I finished all 528 pages of it at 11:30 PM the following day. These were work days, mind you, so it’s not like I was sitting in the back yard under my apple tree all day; I was reading the book over my lunch “hour”, on the stationary bike at the gym, at stoplights …

Which isn’t to say it’s a great novel. Far from it. There’s not a whole lot of profundity or innovation or eloquence or erudition. Think early Stephen King without the character development. Just a lot of page turning and wondering where the hell Smith is going with this.

Smith previous penned A Simple Plan, a fantastic thriller that was turned in an equally riveting film. Apparently they also made a movie of The Ruins, but … well, let’s just say it hasn’t been as well received. Frankly, that doesn’t surprise me, as the allure of the novel is precisely in it’s Summer Bookability. This is the quintessential airplane book, something to cleanse you palate between “good” books or just get lost in for a day or two. That would be damning with faint praise perhaps, if The Ruins aspired to be more than that. But it does not. Judged by the goals Smith clearly had in mind–to write a compulsively readable thriller–the novel is an unqualified success. And if that’s all you go in expecting, you won’t be disappointed.

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy)

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy), a compendium of essays on fatherhood headed up by Dooce’s Heather Armstrong, hits stores today. I contributed a chapter, with the caveat that it not follow any of those of the other writers (as they are all so astoundingly talented that mine would pale in comparison), and also not come first. I’m not sure how Heather pulled this off. Stayed up late last night, printing out copies of my piece from her home PC and stapling them to the back covers, is my guess.


Books: A Day In the Life

So I’m at a get-together the other day, and someone mentions The Beatles, and someone else asks, “When did ‘The Beatles’ really start to exist? Is it when Ringo joined the group? When John, Paul, and George got together? When John and Paul met?”

And I said, “Really, The Beatles, as an entity, consisted of five people, and would be ‘The Beatles’ in name alone without any one of them. Those five people were John, Paul, George, Ringo, and George Martin, who produced most of their albums, as well as scoring the orchestral backups and often playing instruments on individual songs. Martin enters the equation in 1962, and The Beatles’ first recording session with him was in November of that year. One month later the “Love Me Do” single was released. So, in my opinion, The Beatles, as we now know them, began in late 1962.”

Whoa! Check out the big brain on Baldwin!

It helped, I suppose, that I’d just finished reading the book A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles the day prior to this conversation. Truth be told, a month ago I knew pretty much nothing about The Beatles. I was born a year after McCartney announced the dissolution of the group, and although I owned the White Album while attending college (as required by law), never really listened to it much.

In fact, it was the commission of a mortifying Beatles-related faux pas on my part that inspired me to read the book in the first place. I casually mentioned that I thought “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was pretty catchy and received a fusillade of derision, with comments ranging from “you know, that’s pretty much universally acknowledged as the worst Beatles song” to “I really like McCartney, but that one makes me want to beat him with a tire iron.”

Humiliated, I resolved to listen to hundreds of hours of The Beatles compositions until I, too,developed a highly refined appreciation of their discography and legacy. Or, read a book about them. One of the two.

Fortunately, in opting for the latter option, I picked a book that served as a passable substitute for the former. Author Mark Hertsgaard bills A Day In the Life as the only book that focuses foremost on the music, rather than the celebrity, of the Fab Four. He does this by alternating between chapters devoted to specific albums and chapters covering some other aspect of Beatology. For example, chapter 13 covers the Rubber Soul album, chapter 14 discusses the role George Martin played behind the scenes, chapter 15 looks at the 1966 release Revolver, 16 investigates their drug use, and so on.

Though the topics are arranged semi-chronologically (their experimentations with mind-altering drugs really did began between their Rubber Soul and Revolve LPs, for instance), each chapter is largely self-contained. Thus, the book reads like a collection of essays rather than as a single narrative, a format I preferred. It’s unlikely I could have pulled off that “let me tell you a little something about George Martin” stunt if all of the information pertinent to my argument has been strewn over 400 pages instead of confined to chapter 14.

Hertsgaard sometimes gets a little carried away in his enthusiasm for the band–reading some of his fervent descriptions of their early pop singles and then listening to the songs in questions is like a summer of overhyped blockbuster movies that fail to meet you wildly unrealistic expectations. And his “album-chapters” occasionally got a little too in-depth for my liking, sometimes going so far as to rhapsodize about a single note or passage in a song. And yet the non-album chapters were uniformly riveting. In fact, A Day In The Life was a compulsive read for me. When the fractures between The Beatles began to appear, I was less sad that the band was going to break up than I was that the book was going to end.


Books: Red Mars

Red Mars, the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling epic about the terraforming and colonization of Mars, is epitomized by two passages.

The first is found on page 102, shortly after the first settlers arrive on the barren planet:

The stacked crate walls made a ramp to drive the tractor off the lander. They didn't look strong enough, but that was the gravity again.

Nadia had turned on the tractor's heating system as soon as she could reach it and now she climbed into the cab and tapped a command into its autopilot, feeling that it would be best to let the thing descend the ramp on its own, with her and Samantha watching from the side, just in case the ramp was more brittle in the cold than expected, or otherwise unreliable. She still found it almost impossible to think in terms of martian g, to trust the designs that took it into account. The ramp just looked too flimsy!

Any author, writing about Mars, would describe the physical aspect of low “martian g,” with astronauts bounding about and lifting enormous enormous crates with the greatest of ease. So too does Robinson. But he delves much, much deeper than that, exploring the psychological aspects of martian g. The ramp just looks too flimsy!

Robinson hasn’t just written a saga about people who go to Mars; he contemplates what it would actually be like to live there. Each of the book’s eight parts are told from the point of view of one of the “First 100,” the team that makes up the initial landing party. Made up of geologists, biologists, physicists, architects, agriculturalist, and others (there’s even a psychologist to keep them sane), the First 100 is tasked with paving the way for future settlement, by transforming the planet into something habitable (if only bearly) to humans. This project is so monumental that only the first stages are documented in Red Mars; the sequel is called Green Mars because of the establishment of flora; and the thickened atmosphere gives the final book, Blue Mars, its title.

Here’s the second passage, which appears two pages after the first:

Now [Nadia] could wander in the dim ruby light of sunset, her old jazz collection piped from the habitat stereo into her helmet headphones, as she rooted in supply boxes and picked out any tool she wanted. She would carry them back to a small room she had commandeered in one of the storage warehouses, whistling along with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, adding to a collection that included, among other items, an Allen wrench set, some pliers, a power drill, several clamps, some hacksaws, an impact-wrench set, a brace of cold-tolerant bungie cords, assorted files and rasps and planes, a crescent-wrench set, a crimper, five hammers, some hemostats, three hydraulic jacks, a bellows, several sets of screwdrivers, drills and bits, a portable compressed gas cylinder, a box of plastic explosives and shape charges, a tape measure, a giant Swiss Army knife, tin snips, tongs, tweezers, three vises, a wire stripper, X-acto knives, a pick, a bunch of mallets, a nut driver set, hose clamps, a set of end mills, a set of jeweler's screwdrivers, a magnifying glass, a11 kinds of tape, a plumber's bob and ream, a sewing kit, scissors, sieves, a lathe, levels of all sizes, long-nosed pliers, vise-grip pliers, a tap-and-die set, three shovels, a compressor, a generator, a welding-and-cutting set, a wheelbarrow ...

This is an extreme example–there’s only one other itemized list like this in the novel–but, even so, long tracts of the book feel similar. The research Robinson put into this book is staggering, but it’s as if he feels compelled to recount every fact he uncovered in his studies, and at times this makes for a volume as arid as the Martian landscape. (And lest you think “It’s okay! I’m a big science nerd! I’d love to read a detailed explanation of how they sprinkle black dust on the Martian poles to raise the albedo and melt them!”, be forewarned that Robinson goes on at length about every aspect of Martian settlement. For example, thirty pages are devoted to psychological theory and the intricate relationship between introverts, extroverts, stable, and labile personality types. No kidding.)

Despite Robinson’s occasional bouts of logorrhea, I quite enjoyed Red Mars. One thing I noticed: as the chronology of the book got farther and father from the present, Robinson has to rely more on imagination than research, and the novel feels less and less like a textbook. Thus, about halfway through, the nitty-gritty of terraformation begins to take a backseat to the politics of the burgeoning Martian society. By the final 200 pages, it’s almost pure space opera. “Science-fiction” is not only the genre to which the novel belongs, but an apt description of its progression: it starts as science, and slowly slides across the spectrum to fiction.

Written in 1993, some of Robinson’s predictions already look naive in retrospect. The chances of us settling Mars by 2026, for instance, are slim indeed. But in other ways, the book feels perfectly suited for the times. Much of the book grapples with the positive and negative effects of globalization (though the “globe,” in this case, is only half the diameter of our own). Not to mention the difficulty imperialistic powers have in occupying a distance, sandy land occupied by people who object to the interference of outsiders and trans-national corporations. The book would be an allegory for the early 21st century, were it not written in the late 20th.

In many ways, Red Mars reminds me of its fantasy counterpart, The Fellowship of the Ring. To appreciate both, you have to wade through a lot of sometime laborious backstory, and many times you can’t help but think that you’d rather have read the book than to still be reading it. But your appreciation for the sheer amount of effort and inventiveness the author put into the story keeps you turning pages, and, by the time you’re done, you feel like the novel was more of an experience than just a read.

Or perhaps it’s just enough to say this: though getting through the first 600 pages of the Mars trilogy was sometimes a chore, I am still eager to read the remaining 1,400. That’s saying something right there.

Book And Movie: The Prestige

Some people like books about cats that solve mysteries. Some people like books about rugged individuals wandering post-apocalyptic America. Me, I like books about magicians, escape artists, and mediums, set in eras when such professions were respectable. Thus my fondness for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Carter Beats the Devil, Girl in the Glass (and why I will presumably love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if I can ever overcome my crippling fear of its sheer enormity and actually attempt to read it).

So picking up The Prestige was a no-brainer. Feuding magicians in the late nineteenth century, each desperate to discover the secret of his rival’s greatest illusion? What’s not to like?

After a brief introduction set in modern times, the novel is epistolary, supposedly the journals of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, illusionists who plied their trade in turn-of-the-(last)-century London. An altercation between the two men in their youth snowballs into lifelong tit-for-tatism, each oscillating between desire to see the other ruined and remorse over how prolonged and petty the grudgematch has become. Each man has a signature trick that involves teleportation: in The New Transported Man, Bordon steps into one cabinet and instantly emerges from another across the stage; during In A Flash, Angier disappears in a surge of electricity and re-enters the theater moments later, from the back of the galley. Though the tricks are nearly identical, their central mechanism are starkly different; the crux of the book is that each man is ignorant of how the other does his version of the illusion, and is haunted by the knowledge that his opponent might have a “superior” method.

Having quite enjoyed the novel, I picked up the DVD for the 2006 film and prepared for disappointment. Surprisingly, the movie was as good as the book, as the screenwriter and director chose to adapt the story for the screen, rather than slavishly adhere to the source material. The framing device for the book (a man in contemporary time who is given the journals to read) is jettisoned entirely, and some aspects of the relationship between Borden and Angier and changed as well. I wouldn’t say that the film’s revisions were necessarily better, but they are certainly more cinematic. Thus, neither pales in comparison to the other, as both are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own.

Still, despite their difference, both the novel and the film tackle the same central question: what will a man do to be the best in his profession? In the case of Borden and Angier, it’s not only a question of what they will sacrifice to perfect their own illusions, but to what lengths they will go to destroy their rivals. Like master magicians adept in misdirection, both author Christopher Priest and director Christopher Nolan have crafted thrillers that keep you so engaged that you don’t even realize the profundity of the questions they explore, until you find yourself ruminating about the story in the days and weeks to follow.