On Autism

For those who don’t know, autism is something very close to my heart thanks to the fact that my charming, awkward, sweet and utterly aggravating younger brother Danny has Asperger’s Syndrome.* With this post I wanted to share a couple of things including what it was like growing up with autism and a couple of resources for learning more about it.

(* Yes, technically Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer being used as a medical term, but it referred to the more mild half of the autistic spectrum, and is still an accurate way of describing Danny.)

First off, when talking with people who have had little experience with the topic, my favorite way to introduce them to the world of autism is to recommend the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Written by Mark Haddon and published in 2003, the mystery novel is told from the perspective of a severely autistic 15-year-old boy named Christopher as he tries to figure out who killed his neighbor’s dog. Throughout the novel the reader gets to experience what life is like for Christopher as he explains how he sees the world and travels from his sheltered world in a special school adapted to his needs through the public transportation of London in a quest to find the answer to his mystery.

While this journey seems fairly simple, even the smallest interaction is fraught with difficulties for Christopher. The reader quickly comes to understand the challenges when at the beginning of the book Christopher meets the policeman who comes to investigate the dog’s death. The kind-intentioned police officer gets more and more suspicious of the strangely-behaving teenage boy hugging the dead dog, and when Christopher won’t follow the police officer’s order, the policeman grabs his arm. Because of Christopher’s autism, however, he won’t allow anyone to touch him and immediately lashes out and strikes the policeman. And so fifteen-year-old Christopher ends up getting thrown in jail for assaulting a police officer.

The book also has more lighthearted moments as well, and moments that while a little sad can also be incredibly amusing. It is a fairly light, easy read, and does a great job of putting the reader in the shoes of an autistic person and seeing what life is like from that perspective. I highly recommend it as a book, and think it is the easiest way I’ve come across of understanding the complicated world of autism.

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In school I wrote plenty of personal pieces on the topic of autism, although nothing anywhere near as good as Mark Haddon’s book. Autism was one of my favorite subject matters for several of my creative writing classes, and I found that in many ways I used these writing assignments as an almost therapeutic way to process my own experiences and emotions around the topic. A lot of it was fairly terrible writing, but some of the pieces I felt managed to capture the right feeling. The following poem I wrote for class in high school, and while it doesn’t have a lot of poetic merit, it helped me to express the experience:

Where He Cannot Change

His hoarse voice is disappearing loudly
As his bathroom on the other side of the wall rattles
With his anger, his frustration, his incapability
Of dealing with the world around him.
He stares into the mirror and sobs
“I hate you”

The whole house hears him
How can we not
And we hurt with him.
We have tried to help
Tried to smooth his way
But we cannot help him there—
Inside his agonized brain
Where he was made,
Different and difficult,
Where he cannot change
And where he is torturing himself
As we all listen.

I also wrote a creative nonfiction essay on the topic that I thought turned out reasonably, but as its about 15 pages its a little big long to share here…

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Another thing I came across recently is the charity Autism Speaks. I found them through Sevenly, a clothing store that sells designs for a different charity each week and donates proceeds to them. A while ago Sevenly featured a design with a lion’s head and the phrase “Live Loud,” for the charity Autism Speaks. “Live Loud” is an embodiment of what Autism Speaks does: provide communication therapy for severely autistic children so that they can learn to actually communicate with the world around them. The shirt immediately reminded me of my excessively loud-mouthed brother, and when I thought of the huge amounts of resources in terms of time, energy and money that my parents poured into a variety of communication therapies for Danny, and knew I had to get the shirt.

Danny is very high functioning, and in fact most people would probably not guess that he’s autistic, just awkward, occasionally tactless, very rule-bound and a little strange. The children that Autism Speaks helps, on the other hand, have low-functioning autism and hardly communicate with the world around them at all. But even though Danny has always been high functioning, and can muddle his way through the world fairly well at this point, there was still such a gamut of help that my parents found for him that I find it hard to wrap my head around it now. For example for several years Danny would meet once a week with a speech therapist at the local Starbucks, where he would get coached and practice regular interpersonal interactions such as striking up a conversation with the barista. Unlike most of us, who figure out based on social cues if a comment is socially appropriate or not, or what is expressed with a slight change in tone of voice, Danny had to be taught all of that.

I’m still amazed at the effort my parents put into helping Danny, and the effort that Danny had to put in every day to learn how to deal with a world that he couldn’t quite figure out and that couldn’t figure out him. But what is perhaps more important at this point, having achieved so much, is to now accept the autism and put it behind him as something that no more defines him than having wavy brown hair. Yes he is autistic. But he is also someone who loves cliche movies and bad puns, who prefers to play games cooperatively rather than competitively, who is a sweetheart of a boyfriend and never notices when he is talking with his mouth completely full of food. Most importantly to me, he’s my brother.

I am happy to talk more about autism with anyone who is curious. It is important to me that the world understands my brother—so often growing up he interacted with people who didn’t realize why he behaved differently and who therefore ended up treating him cruelly through their ignorance or apathy. So if you have a question, comment, or just a story to share, please let me know!

The Story Is Starting! A Review of The Silent History

I am more excited about The Silent History app than any other app I’ve seen in a long time. Ostensibly a novel, The Silent History is an ebook for iPhone and iPad that unfolds only over both time and place, transforming the reading experience from a passive experience into one of participation and exploration.

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A collaborative project with many contributors, it is in part the brainchild of Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s. Apparently Horowitz has brought his expertise in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a book or a magazine into the digital realm. It is hard to know yet how successful he has been in pulling this off, as the book has only released three days of content so far:

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So how exactly does The Silent Histories work? Good question! The Silent Histories is the only book I’ve purchased that comes with an extensive FAQ section.

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I’m still discovering exactly what it is myself, but I think at its most basic it is a novel that is being released in segments. The whole story line is broken up into six volumes and within each volume, individual segments will be released one each day until that volume is finished. So far in the three segments released I’ve been introduced to Theodore Green (a new father), Nancy Jernick (a new mother), and August Burnham (a doctor specializing in Childhood Disintegrative Disorder). The book’s description says it will track the emergence of a new generation of children with a communication disorder that no one has seen before. In fact, at a basic level it reminds me a bit of the book Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear that also deals with a whole generation of children being born with unusual characteristics.

But the book is not merely a serially published novel. In addition to having content released over time (referred to as Testimonials) the app/novel also has content released only in certain places. Referred to as Field Notes, these additions to the story line are tied to a physical place and are only available when the reader is in close physical proximity to that place. The app’s full description of field notes is the following:

“The Field Reports are short, site-specific accounts that deepen and expand the central narrative, written and edited in collaboration with the readers of the Testimonials. To access and comprehend a Field Report, the reader must be physically present in the location where the Report is set. Reports are deeply entwined with the particularities of their specific physical environments — the stains on the sidewalk, the view between the branches, a strangely ornate bannister, etc — so that the text and the actual setting support and enhance each other. Each of these reports can be read on its own, but they all interrelate and cohere within the larger narrative.”

What is perhaps even more intriguing than the fact that they are tied to physical location is the fact that readers can edit or add to them. Reading The Silent Histories is in fact a participatory act.

Will The Silent History forever change what it means to be a book? We’ll see. The news media is going crazy over it, and of all the apps I’ve seen that play with the possibilities offered in new ebook technology (and I’ve looked at quite a few), this is by far the most amazing and exciting. So what is my answer? It quite possibly could change the definition and experience of reading a book. And I’m looking forward to it.

What do you think?

The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

My all time favorite book, my first choice in all situations when people ask for book recommendations (except perhaps for eight-year-olds), and yet a book that most people have never heard of, is The Telling by Ursula K LeGuin.

As an author, Ursula K LeGuin is one of the few authors who I think best captures humanity and the reality of what it means to be human. Other authors do more beautiful prose, more enthralling plot lines, or transport the reader to more exotic, enchanting settings than LeGuin. Faulkner with his stream of consciousness and variety of approaches, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his magical realism do more interesting, unusual, unexpected things with literature than LeGuin does. But in my opinion LeGuin and Tolstoy are the two authors who have managed to best capture what it really means to be human. They capture the sublime beauty, the simple pleasure, the deep, throbbing tragedy and grief, and the daily hum drum of existence that seems to pass for life in my experience. And to be fair, I don’t find all of LeGuin’s books this spectacular, although I have liked all the ones I’ve read so far (the short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas is my other favorite of hers). But The Telling has enthralled me since I first read it, and I will keep re-reading and recommending it for a long time to come.

I have mixed thoughts about the cover. I would never nominate it for any design competitions, but I do find the illustration appealing and enjoy looking at it. However, it has almost nothing to do with the story! The woman pictured could, I suppose, be the protagonist in terms of skin and hair coloring (the protagonist Sutty is ethnically Indian) but I couldn’t picture her ever frolicking in a field of flowers and butterflies like that; she’s a bit too down to earth for that. And the fancy looking airplane or spaceship up in the right hand corner does hint at the fact that this sci-fi book deals with space travel, but spaceships and air travel are hardly a main focus of the book… again I’m pretty sure that nothing about this scene actually took place during the book.

Continue reading The Best Book You’ve Never Heard Of

Inspiration and Fraud in Persian Poetry

The other day I was thinking about buying a book on Sufi poetry. It’s something that I’ve run across in small bits and pieces in my dealings with poetry, and always enjoyed. With my limited exposure to it, I found I enjoyed it’s blend of religiousness, nature, romance, sensuality, and wisdom. So when I was trying to brainstorm books to read for my trip to India, this series of books, including A Year with Hafiz and Love Poems from God, came to my attention. I was looking for something to read that would give me a better sense of the cultural background of India; of course Persia and India are very different cultures, but there was enough Persian influence in the Mughal courts that once ruled most of Northern India and built the Taj Mahal (among other stunning monuments), that it seemed relevant.

I looked at those two books specifically because I remembered seeing them in my book of Penguin cover design (Penguin 75). These covers are definitely eye-catching: graceful, elegant, simple, vibrant, just the right touch with the inspiration from Persian carpet design, without being too much. Designed by Ingsu Liu, wife of Penguin art director Paul Buckley, she describes her process:

what stood out to me the most was the bold, lush colors, as well as the ornate patterns from the region’s typography and fabrics. … And not being Middle Eastern myself, I figured it would be smart to keep things simple, not to mention the first of the series was a book of haiku, so that pretty much set the look for the series—spare and elegant.

I came really close to purchasing the books. Poems like the one below struck a cord in me that I felt I could relate to, while still being spare, lyrical, and elegant.

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth
“You owe me”
Look what happens with a love like that
It lights the whole sky

But I didn’t buy the books.

Why? I came across this article, http://www.payvand.com/news/09/apr/1266.html, reproduced below, that discusses that poem in particular. I’ll leave you to read it in a second, but I have to admit, I’m still teetering about what I think of the books, months later. I haven’t decided if their actual origin taints the poetry for me, or if I can still appreciate the poems for themselves. Leave a comment and let me know what you think about it.

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Numerous people have tried to find the original Persian verse, but they’ve failed. Many went through their Hafiz books a thousand times, but nothing was found. This verse has appeared all over the place, from wall murals in the United States to greeting cards on the Internet. Afschineh Latifi even used it to title her famed memoir “Even After All this Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran”. Last week, Hojat Golpayegani, writing for Shahrvand, talked about how he has been searching extensively “But without any success”.

Well, I am going to end the agony. It does not exist.

Those who have gone and searched their Farsi books of Hafiz shouldn’t have done so. That’s just not the proper way. They should have been looking for the English version of the poem to see who has translated it and what the sources are. This is especially necessary for Hafiz, since historically it has been shown that translating his work to English is a complex process for which no definitive, accepted version stands out.

The poem that Mr. McGuinty recited comes from a book called “The Gift: Poems by Hafez the Great Sufi Master” by Daniel Ladinsky, American Sufi poet. It was published in 1999 by Penguin Books and was commercially successful. However, this book has nothing to do with Hafiz. Ladinsky, a Sufi who has spent years with Mehrbaba in India, doesn’t even know how to read or write in Farsi. In fact, he claims that he has heard the poems from Hafiz himself in a dream. “I feel my relationship to Hafiz defies all reason” he says in the book’s introduction. “It is really an attempt to do the impossible, to translate light into words… About six months into this work I had an astounding dream in which I saw Hafiz as a never-ending, boundless sun (God), who sang hundreds of verses of his poetry to me in English, asking me to give his message to ‘my fellow artists and art seekers’ “.

This has been rebuked by a lot of critics who accuse Ladinsky of out-right fraud and deception. Murat Nemet-Nejat, a modern Turkish essayist and poet, asserts “Ladinsky’s book is an original poem masquerading as a translation… As God talked to Moses in Hebrew, to Mohammad in Arabic, Hafiz spoke to Daniel Ladinsky in English. Mr. Ladinsky is translating a dream, not a 14th century Persian text”. He continues “As such, the book is worse than a failure; it is a deception, a marketing rip-off of his name”

Temptation Strikes, Again (Thank You Chip Kidd)

Yep, I’m doing it again. Buying a book (or possibly three) based on its cover. But the covers are so cool!!! Check them out (click on them to see a bigger version):

Blood on the Moon     Because the Night     Suicide Hill

They were designed by Chip Kidd, book cover designer extraordinaire. Were I to achieve half of the ability and fame of Chip Kidd, I’d be pleased. I’m doing a project about him for my type class, so I bought myself the book Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006, which in addition to having a veritable plethora, a smorgasbord if you will, of awesome designs by him, it also has a fair bit of his delightfully tongue-in-cheek commentary that is actually very informative about his design process and experiences. I’ve just skimmed through it so far, gorging my eyes on the delightful, ridiculous, and (almost always) amazing images, but I looking forward to take the time to go through and carefully read what he has to say about everything. Can’t wait!

Oh, and I’m sure the books will be fun to read too. Detective stories are always good for a read, and I have a plane flight to Tennessee coming up in a couple weeks.

Anna, Leo, and Me: Thoughts on finishing Anna Karenina

AnnaKareninaWell I’ve done it!

After months of picking it up, reading for awhile, and putting it down again, I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina. And though it’s seemed more like a marathon than a simple walk through the park, its been very enjoyable. While I don’t find Tolstoy a page-turner, I’m amazed at how well he captures humanity, in all its coarse, unpolished and hum-drum details and therefore how well he captures what it means to be alive. It is glorious, and yet all so ordinary.

And in Anna Karenina Tolstoy manages to fit all turns of life: birth, death, youth, love, hope, disappointment, urban life, rural life, storms and elation. I’ll warn you right now that much of the rest of this post will include PLOT SPOILERS so don’t read after this paragraph if you don’t want to know about some of the plot twists and turns. Just know that I definitely recommend it!

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I will admit, for awhile I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. I had stopped reading for a bit right when Anna and Vronsky start their affair, and I was so into the storyline that reading made me anxious and up tight about their fate, so I didn’t enjoy reading! But curiosity got the better of me, and I pushed through to find out that their affair did end up at least sort of working out, and then I got caught up in the love story between Levin and Kitty, and finished the rest without too much difficulty.

There were several poignant moments that I really loved, especially at the birth of Levin’s first child:

He only knew and felt that what was happening was similar to what had happened the year before in the hotel of the provincial town on the deathbed of his brother Nicholas. But that had been grief—this was joy. Yet that grief and this joy were alike outside all the ordinary conditions of life; they were loop-holes, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And, as in that case, what was now being accomplished came harshly, painfully, incomprehensibly; and while watching it, the soul soared to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.

and the tiny little details, like his reaction to his infant son:

And this consciousness was at first so painful, the fear lest that helpless being should suffer was so strong, that it quite hid the strange feeling of unreasoning joy and even pride which he experienced when the baby sneezed.

Watching Anna’s spiral downwards was fascinating and horrifying. It felt so easy to identify with Anna and what she was thinking, and yet at the same time to look at her from without and see how she was making herself miserable. And when she finally committed suicide, it felt so bizarrely understandable! And yet, so tragic. She knew that it wasn’t Vronsky and it wasn’t her, it was some evil force (which I read as depression or a similar mental affliction) that was bearing her under. The detail that Tolstoy put in about when she crossed herself, the great shadow lifted and she remembered what was beautiful in life again, but she went ahead with her suicide anyway, wondering all the while why her body was still moving on this seemingly unalterable course. So heartbreaking, those last few moments, as they seem so preventable.

And then, with the ending of Levin’s discovery of faith, through the words of the simple peasant:

Oh, well, of course, folks are different. One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man. He lives for his soul. He does not forget God.

I can’t help bring the two together. The book is titled after Anna, and yet Tolstoy ends with Levin. Is the ideal to live for God and righteousness a comment on Anna’s life? One could argue that Anna has lived her life in ways meant to fill her emotional “belly” and not looking at what is the right thing to do but merely what she feels she needs. And yet, she also seems like a woman who’s happiness has been destroyed at every turn by the whims and strict structures of society. One can’t help but feel that she could so easily have been a successful, beneficial member of society. Yet, one can’t deny that she lived for her own happiness. She lived for what she wanted, and not what (in at least one sense) was the “right” thing to do. But then what is the “right” thing to do?

I must admit, I like Levin’s answer. To be a good person, even if it makes no logical sense and you can find no reason to defend it.