Tuesday, December 29, 2015

BestReads 2015 - What I Read and Remembered

I didn't get to read as much as I wanted to this year, and there were several "bombs" - books which fell short of my expectations. But there were a few that stood out.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

This was one of those books I grabbed on impulse, began reading, thought I might not finish...and ended up enjoying.  The time period is turn-of-the-century New York, and there is plenty of detail to feast on, from the seedy back passages and whorehouses of the city, to the jangling and peculiar excitement of a circus on Coney Island, to the claustrophic and appalling conditions of the Blackwell Island’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The characters are richly drawn and seemed so disparate that I wondered how Parry would manage to thread them together. Sylvan (AKA Dogboy) is a "night soil man" who discovers an infant in a privy and chooses to keep it. Alphie finds herself in the Insane Asylum for no reason which she can fathom. The teenaged sword swallower Belle, one of two sisters who flees Coney Island after a fire burns down the theatre and kills their mother, has lost the ability to speak. Odile is desperately searching for her sister in the city among the theatres, brothels and opium dens that proliferated during the period.

One of my shortcomings as a reader is that I tend to become disgruntled with books which are built on coincidences and neatly tied plot resolutions. But The Church of Marvels was so richly textured that I happily went along for the ride this time, and there were plenty of twists and turns which I never saw coming.

Neurotribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman

This is a comprehensive history of the condition which is now referred to as autism, or the autism spectrum, as well as providing biographical sketches of those who may or may not have been "on the continuum" (Henry Cavendish, Nicola Tesla), modern case studies, and chronicling the lives of two notable researchers - Hans Aspberger and Leo Kanner.

Silberman makes the case that the recent spike in diagnoses, far from being the result of any one contemporary factor, is actually dawning recognition that the autism spectrum embraces those from the "lower functioning" scale all the way up to the "brilliant but eccentric".  Autism as a diagnosis allows for the provision of education and services tailored for a person's particular needs, to help them to realize their potential, but to lump them all together under one label makes no more sense than saying that all "neurotypicals" (the non-autistic population) think and act the same. There's a saying "if you've met one autistic child - well, you've met one autistic child". Neurotribes highlights the contributions made by both the well-known autistics (Tesla, Temple Grandin, James Durbin, ) and those unknown engineers, ham radio operators and innovators who have helped to push the world forward in their own way.

This is by no means an easy read. Silberman writes at length about Aspberger and Kanner as well as other researchers. Some chapters tend to be rather dry, especially if one isn't interested in clinical studies. The section which discusses the once-accepted ideas of sterilization, abortion and euthanization of the mentally ill I found wrenching. And while Silberman includes discussions and sketches of autistics on the lower end of the cognitive scale (as well as the difficulties of parents and families), his main spotlight is on those with the less debilitating forms.

If there is one message, it is this:  we need to accommodate, and appreciate, neurological differences.

Everyone has a place in this world.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

I read this some time ago, and I'm re-reading it now. (It's still 2015 so I say it qualifies.) At almost 1000 pages it won't be everyone's cup of tea. It's a massive, semi-autobiographical tale of an escaped Australian bank robber and drug addict who ends up in Bombay. He settles into a slum, opens a small clinic, is arrested, tortured, even does a short stint as a Bollywood agent. Everything is in here; philosphical musings, intricate detail, larger-than-life characters, ridiculous set-ups, romance, mob bosses, a dancing bear...it feels like a mash-up of Hunter S. Thompson, Crime and Punishment, and the Sopranos. If even a third of this novel is true, than Roberts has led a charmed and somewhat delirious life.


I wonder where he is now?

Timeless by Kamoinge

This is sort of a cheat - it's a photo book, and I only got time to flip through it quickly. But I'd love to buy a copy some day. Close to 300 photos taken in NYC, suburban America and Africa. Portraits, landscapes and "shutter moments" capturing people doing everyday things. The photographs are by a collective of African-American photographers called Kamoinge, founded in 1963.


That's all for now. I've got places to go and people to see. I wish you all a HAPPY NEW YEAR. May it be healthy and peaceful. Links below to a few other BestRead 2015 posts. Made your own list? Drop a comment and share it with us!

-John Wiswell's Bathroom Monologues
-Cat Russell
-Katherine Hajer
-Kat Clay
-Elephant's Child
-Marc Nash

-Janice Hardy





18 comments:

  1. The autism book and the photography book sound right up my alley. I'm going to have to add them to the list!

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    1. I love photography books but they're so expensive, just not in my budget right now. Someday when I retire, I'll sell a bunch of stuff, move to a smaller house and buy books. (Assuming books are still around by then.)

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  2. I adored Shantaram. I think he's died since, so probably no follow up. Those 1000 pages went fast. I read 120 books in 2015. Happy New Year Li!

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    1. 120 books! You put me to shame! :0 There was talk of Shantaram being made into a movie with Johnny Depp. And that would be just plain awesome.

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  3. It always amazes me, the number of books I'm not familiar with.

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    1. Me too! Lists are so helpful - I hate to say it, but I find better (and more honest) reviews from bloggers than I do on sites like Amazon.

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  4. Lisa, great list ! Inspires me to make one of my own.

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    1. Yes, please do! I love reading other peopl's lists!

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  5. 'if you've met one autistic child - well, you've met one autistic child' was a quote I first came across in a Lisa Genova book - which I disliked for its use of coincidence and slick tying up of loose ends. I found the research about autism fascinating though and suspect I would devour the Silberman book.
    Church of Marvels sounds right up my very broad reading alley too. Thank you so much for tempting me. Again.

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    1. I highly recommend the Silberman book if you've already read background material. Also Temple Grandin's Thinking In Pictures for an inside look at how one autistic found her place in the world.

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  6. Considering its prevalence, Neurotribes sounds interesting. Did he offer any ideas as to its cause?
    Happy 2016.Hope its the best yet.

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    1. There definitely appears to be a genetic component in at least some cases. Silberman discusses studies of "clusters" in areas like Silicon Valley and the theory that people with particular brain hardwiring that favors skills in mathematics, number theory, patterns, etc. tend to marry each other. That in turn may combine/intensify some gene (or genes) that code for certain skills to the detriment of other "soft" skills like social interaction, language acquisition, ability to interpret facial expression, etc. It's an interesting theory and may apply in some cases. (He also discusses the faulty study that led to the anti-vaccination movement.) However, after spending 15 years in the field and reading quite a bit, it strikes me that autism seems a little bit like cancer. (It's a crude analogy but bear with me.) We know that some cancers have a genetic component. We know that environmental factors can also cause it or exacerbate it. We know that at least one virus )HPV) can cause it. I suspect that autism falls along the same lines - it seems hereditary in some instances, there is co-morbidity often (seizure disorders, IBS, Tourette's) and there could be environmental factors, as well as possible infection by a virus suffered by the child while in the womb or as an infant.
      Happy New Year to you too! Thanks for dropping by.

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  7. That is some list you have there! :-)

    Greetings from London.

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  8. I've always wanted to read Shantaram but haven't done so yet! Church of Marvels looks really interesting. I'm having a slow start this year - I'm read a good book on Zimbabwe but it's a biography and slow going.

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    1. I'm in the same boat - just finished Simon Winchester's "Pacific", which dragged a bit here and there.

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  9. Thanks for popping by on the road trip, are you Atoz ing this year?
    Regards
    Michael

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    1. Yes but I'm afraid it won't be up to my usual standards. I haven't time to do a theme requiring weeks of research like the last 2 years. It will probably be very random subjects, whatever grabs my fancy on that particular day. (Yes, I'm "pantsing it" as well.)

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