Books: Sparrow Migrations

June 19, 2014

The premise of Sparrow Migrations intrigued me – “a 12-year-old boy with autism, witnesses the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ from a sightseeing ferry and becomes obsessed with the birds that caused the plane crash.” Other characters are on the ferry or the plane that landed in the Hudson, and while they seem to have nothing else in common with each other, their lives intersect over the course of the novel.

In an author Q&A, Cari Noga explains that she wanted to write about “ordinary people transformed by an extraordinary event –and by each other.” Furthermore, she wanted to make it a “braided narrative” – “multiple story lines that intertwine.” So once she had an initial idea for the novel, she had to find some other characters and conflicts to form the other strands of the braid.

I was not at all surprised to learn that the idea for the story started with Robby, the boy with autism. He is the most fully-developed character. The parts of the story dealing with him and his parents, and their struggles in parenting someone with autism, draw the reader into the characters’ minds and emotions in all their complexity as they deal with a variety of situations. Since the author and her husband have a boy with autism, it is hardly surprising that she can portray their experiences so well.

The other characters, in contrast, were add-ons created for the sake of the “braided narrative,” and their conflicts are those that the author thought would be interesting to deal with. Noga presumably does not have the same personal experiences to draw on with a couple dealing with infertility or a pastor’s wife dealing with homosexuality, and these characters do not come across with the same depth. Read the rest of this entry »

On seeking newness

February 18, 2012

I did something new recently. When I found a blog I liked, instead of adding it to my Favorites folder, I clicked on “Follow” so that I would get new posts by email. At least I thought that was the way it would work – I didn’t get my first update until day before yesterday, a couple of weeks after I had found and followed it.

The post is about neophilia, which is itself a relatively new word (at first glance I thought it said necrophilia, which is something quite different). According to Merriam-Webster the word was first used in 1932, but I don’t recall having seen it before. Now that the New York Times has published an article about a recent book on our need for newness and change, however, I imagine we’ll be seeing more of it.

I have to agree with the blogger Ugotitwrong that the support given for calling novelty-seeking “the quintessential human survival skill” is weak. The pace of change throughout most of human history has been very slow, compared to recent decades. Obviously innovation took place, but it’s pure conjecture to say that the people with the strongest desire for novelty moved it forward, while more cautious people kept change from happening too fast.

I can as easily imagine a “neophiliac” eagerly trying a new type of berry or mushroom and getting poisoned, while the more cautious “neophobe” observed and learned what not to eat. Without knowing what genes influence this behavior, and what other behaviors or traits they affect, we can’t do more than guess how novelty-seeking affected survival.

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Books: Be Different

September 8, 2011

I read this book shortly after reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin, and my first impression was how lackluster this seemed by comparison. Grandin’s book was absolutely fascinating, and I learned a lot from it. The first few chapters of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, by John Elder Robison, were mildly interesting, but no more than that.

As I continued, though, Robison started to cover material that was new to me. I already know about how people with Asperger Syndrome, and more generally people with any autism spectrum disorder, tend to have particular routines and behaviors that are important to them, while paying little if any attention to the social conventions followed by society at large. The chapters on learning manners as an adult were of some interest because I had to also, though for different reasons. When Robison got into emotions and mirror neurons, however, I really got interested.

People with Asperger’s tend to appear unemotional to other people, both because they do not display the same emotional responses we are accustomed to, and because they tend to approach situations from a strictly logical perspective. What Robison explains, however, is that he feels all the same emotions, he just doesn’t understand what other people are feeling, or know how to express emotions the way most people do.

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Books: Animals in Translation

August 15, 2011

I had been intending to read a book by Temple Grandin at some point, but hadn’t gotten around to it. When I found Animals in Translation in the library catalog, I immediately put a hold on it. The book not only tells some of Grandin’s own story as a person with autism who has a successful career and communicates effectively, it explains a great deal about animal behavior, and touches on issues of language and brain research. Once I had finished reading The Big Burn, I read through Grandin’s book in a single day.

Besides touching on multiple subjects that are important to me, it’s an easy and enjoyable read. I had wondered what the writing would be like in a book written by a person with autism. Grandin had a co-author, Catherine Johnson, so I don’t know just how much of the “feel” of the book is Grandin’s and how much is Johnson’s, but I got the impression that I was hearing Grandin’s “voice.” (The acknowledgements section at the end of the book includes a section by each writer; Grandin’s section reads like the rest of the book, while Johnson’s reads quite differently.)

The writing is simple and straightforward, without the abundance of complex and subordinate clauses that many writers (including me) tend to use. Unfamiliar words (of which there are many, at least for a reader not previously familiar with the study of the brain and animal behavior) are explained clearly. I don’t think I ever had to go back and reread a paragraph because I hadn’t understood it the first time. But there was no sense of reading a book that had been deliberately simplified.

The focus of the book is understanding animal behavior. Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science, and has spent her career working with livestock (designing equipment for humane handling of livestock and providing consulting on various livestock handling problems). She had noticed, both in her academic research and her work with livestock, certain similarities between how she perceives things and how it appeared that animals perceived things.

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Books: Frankenstein: Prodigal Son

June 6, 2011

Having read the fourth book in Koontz’s Frankenstein series, I decided to back up and start with the first book, Prodigal Son. I had assumed – incorrectly – that it would start with Victor Frankenstein assembling his creature from assorted body parts and then animating it with lightning.

Instead, the book starts with Deucalion (the name the creature gave itself) in a Tibetan monastery. I thought that at least it was some time in the past, until Deucalion mentioned Cheez-Its. Well, a book in which Frankenstein’s monster likes both Cheez-Its, and discussing the meaning of life with monks, is the kind of unusual “horror” book that Koontz writes and that I enjoy reading.

I’m actually not sure to whom the title refers. I assumed at first that it would be Deucalion, who in the two hundred years since Victor created him has changed from a homicidal monster to a wise and compassionate man, and who is now trying to stop the monstrous evils Victor is ready to visit upon the world.

But Deucalion appears only from time to time in the novel. There are other, more recent creations of Victor (now using the surname Helios), who have been programmed to see themselves as superior to human beings, but who find themselves unhappily lacking. One is desperately searching for happiness, cutting up human beings to find their “happiness gland.”

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Disorders in the spotlight

March 25, 2011

It’s amazing what you can learn by looking a word up in the dictionary. Especially if it’s an online dictionary — it’s been a long time since I’ve used a printed dictionary, though we have a couple around the house somewhere. I generally use, which is convenient, easy to use, and doesn’t require a magnifying glass to read the definitions.

Of course, some things I learn there have nothing to do with the words I’m looking up. has a blog, The Hot Word, with not-quite-daily posts on topics related to words. Earlier this week I was reading about the origins of the letters C and Q. Last week I read about Gaelic, and last month about Catalan (a language I can actually understand a little of in its written form).

 But today’s was so interesting, it wasn’t enough just to read the linked article – I promptly went to Google to learn more. Normally I wouldn’t bother with an entry about American Idol, but this one also mentions Asperger Syndrome and Tourette Syndrome. My sister’s son has Asperger Syndrome, and a friend in Michigan has a grandson with Tourette Syndrome. I don’t know anyone with both, though apparently they do tend to show up together.

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Technology-enabled communication

October 14, 2010

I’ve occasionally reflected on the hypothetical question of which I would more mind losing, my sense of sight or hearing. Being a very visually oriented person, I would prefer to keep my sight. But after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today, it occurred to me that I would rather lose either or both than lose my ability to communicate with others.

The article is about how parents of children with speech and communication problems are finding the iPad very useful in providing a means for their children to communicate. There are specialized devices that can help such children, but they cost thousands of dollars. Now less than a thousand dollars, you can buy an iPad and software that lets someone point to pictures to convey his meaning.

The article makes it clear that the iPad isn’t an all-purpose solution for everyone with speech or communication difficulties. Someone who can’t use his hands well could make little use of the tablet computer. But for a lot of children, the iPad is just the right size, and the mere fact that it is mainstream technology rather than a device made for handicapped people helps such children fit in better with their peers.

I’m very glad that Al doesn’t have the kind of problems that would require that kind of help. Back when he was a preschooler, though, I can imagine how useful such a tool might have been. At an age when most children are chattering away and driving their parents nuts with endless questions (my mother used to say that she couldn’t wait for us to talk, and then when we did she wished she knew how to make us stop), he could barely put two or three words together.

He knew lots of words, but they often weren’t useful ones. He could name every animal in his picture book of wild animals, but he couldn’t tell me which kind of cereal he wanted for breakfast. He often resorted to pointing, which doesn’t work well unless you’re close enough to make it clear which thing you’re pointing at – and when you’re three or four years old there’s a great deal that’s out of reach. Both of us ended up frustrated a great deal.

Fortunately a preschool director was able to connect us with the county resources for testing and working with special needs children, and over the next few years his speech and language improved dramatically. Now his biggest problem is that he has so much to say that he tries to talk too fast and we can’t always make out what he says. Today the school speech therapist met with him and talked about using his “snail voice” instead of his “racehorse voice.”

I’m not that much of a talker myself, so I could probably even manage without being able to talk, but I’d sure miss being able to write if I lost that ability. My emails can get as long and wordy as an old-fashioned handwritten letter – and I don’t get writer’s cramp in the process. I hardly ever finish the stories I start writing – but I tell myself that someday (perhaps after Al is grown up) I will. And of course there’s this blog, where I write about whatever strikes me as particularly interesting that I’ve been thinking/reading/learning about lately.

I don’t care for using a laptop, let alone a smaller device like an iPad. I’m a good typist, and I like using a full-size keyboard to relay my thoughts from my mind to the screen (and to whatever digital storage is available). But if I ever did lose the ability to speak and to type, it’s good to know that technology is making more and more ways for people to communicate.