Friday, October 11, 2013

Read-a-Thon tomorrow!

I took the day off from work today so I could do most of the housecleaning I usually do on Saturdays. Tomorrow, I'm going to be READING! Or at least that's my plan. Even if I don't read a TON, it feels good to have a good amount of cleaning done, and a block of time when I know I'll be able to read. At the very least, I want to finish TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, since we're discussing it at my book group in a few days. After that, it's all gravy.

Over 400 people have signed up to participate in the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon. I'm so happy to be joining them!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Description from the Random House website:
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself.

First things first: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan is a really good novel, but it's definitely not for everyone. There is more swearing in this book than in any other book I can remember reading, in my whole life. The F-word is on just about every page, at least once, and there's liberal use of s**t and c**t and I could go on. If you can't tolerate a large amount of foul language, don't go anywhere near this novel. (There's also a heavy Scottish dialect, which took me a little time to get used to. Maybe there are Scottish swears that I didn't even catch.)
In addition: there is a lot of drug and alcohol use, and some violence. There is a lot more sexual talk than actual sex, but there are also multiple references to prostitution, and a few mentions of rape. But, trigger warning, there is one rape scene in the book. After the first moments, once it's clear what's happening, the chapter ends, so I don't feel it was gratuitous, but it was disturbing enough that a warning is appropriate. I'll try to avoid anything else that could be considered a spoiler.
Oh, I might as well add, the narrator is a 15-year-old girl who is probably bisexual, and there are two lesbian characters. If you're still interested in the novel after I've already warned you about the swearing, the sexual talk, the fights, and the rape, then hopefully a couple of teenage girls kissing is no big deal for you.
What I really loved about this novel was the way it took me into Anais's head. It's a scary place to be, but she's incredibly tough -- and she has to be strong, to have survived her turbulent childhood. She's still able to find beauty in the world, sometimes. One day, she goes by herself into the woods.
I climb up on my oak tree, let myself fall back until I am hanging by my knees, hair trailing across the forest floor. It's soothing. The trees still have some leaves, all dry and crackly. The rest are mulch. Hundreds of tiny wishes drift through the woods, they sparkle in the dim, and dance up as silver orbs. (p. 157)

 Anais also has a savage sense of humor. There's a flashback to when she learned how to ride a bike, and she still needed training wheels.
I remember I had this amazing bike, a chopper with a flag on the back. I had tae use stabilizers even though I was nine; I learned to ride it so late it was embarrassing.
"Why did you not learn before you were nine?" some kid asked me.
I wobbled around him with one stabilizer lifting off the ground.
"My mum was too busy tae teach me."
"Too busy doing what?"
"Your da."
"And your brother."  (p. 98)
When social workers informed her they believed she had "a borderline personality," she replied, "'It's better than no personality'" (p.85). In a scene where she's being interviewed by the police, she gives her name as, "'Minnie Mouse, address: Disneyland'" (p. 96). There are times when she's afraid, and times when she feels vulnerable, but most of the time, she's completely, bitingly, unapologetically herself.
And yet, sometimes she doesn’t seem to be sure who she is.
Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem -- I dinnae have an identity, just reflex actions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.  (p. 86)
I first heard about this book on the podcast The Readers, where after mentioning it on several episodes, they chose it for The Readers Book Club earlier this year. (Read more about it and listen to the episode here; be aware that the last section does include spoilers, but Simon and Gav will warn you when they’re coming.) For the Book Club episodes, the hosts usually talk with the author to find out a bit more about them, and how they developed the story, and ask some questions about specific characters or themes. During the interview with Jenni Fagan, she said that she had been “in care” when she was young. She also said that she has ideas for half a dozen or so novels, all very different from one another, and that she hadn’t initially planned for her book about a teenager in care to be her first novel, but that’s just how it turned out.
Fagan doesn’t say very much in that interview about her own experiences in care -- which is completely understandable, and not something most people would press her about. However, having been in a couple of foster homes, a psych hospital, and a group home at various times during my own childhood, I desperately wanted to ask Jenni questions like, “Are there really so many drugs being taken right there in the group home/youth facility, and if so how is that possible? How does everyone get them?” Also, “What is the drinking age in Scotland? How is it that all these teenagers in care have access to that much alcohol?” This is probably the only area where my “willing suspension of disbelief” faltered a little -- although at the same time, I realize that Scotland and the U.S. are different countries, my experience was from 25-30 years ago, and Anais had been in care her whole life, while the periods I was out of my home were short, no more than a few months at a time. (Reading over what I just wrote, it seems weird that I was totally fine with the parts about faces hovering in the walls, men without noses, flying cats, and the idea that Anais might have been grown in a petri dish!)
Overall, I found The Panopticon to be very good, and ultimately inspiring. A lot of the book is dark, but the humorous moments, the poetic images, and the caring connections Anais makes with several other characters, these parts seem that much brighter in contrast. As I said, it’s not a book for everyone, but I hope it finds a large number of readers who will try it and find the beauty within it.
(All quotes and page numbers are from an advance reader’s edition, and might differ slightly from those in the finished publication. I borrowed it from the staff room at the library.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book review: The Spark: a Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

I received an advance reader’s edition of The Spark: a Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The quotes in my review are from that advance copy, and might differ slightly from the published book. The back cover gives a good overview:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize. Last summer, at age twelve, he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

It took a while for the book to arrive, and then it took ME a while to work it into my reading priorities, but when I finally got started on it, I was completely absorbed. In the first twelve to fifteen months of his life, Jacob Barnett was a normal, happy, affectionate baby, with occasional hints of above average intelligence: Kristine writes, “He learned the alphabet before he could walk, and he liked to recite it backward and forward” (p. 13). But around 14 months old, Kristine and her husband Michael began to notice small changes in Jake. He talked less, smiled less, and became generally less interested in other people. Kristine ran a home daycare, and the other children treated Jake as their younger sibling. During that first year, he loved interacting with the other kids, and trying to do the things they did, but by the time he reached about 15 months old, they could barely get his attention. Instead, he was fascinated by shadows, by the play of light and dark on the walls.

Kristine describes how Jake is gradually swallowed up into autism, to the point where he stopped speaking for a couple of years. Kristine and Michael initially resist the diagnosis, but not for long: all the signs are there. The first formal evaluation results in a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, but after the second evaluation, before Jake’s third birthday, the diagnosis is revised to “full-blown, moderate to severe autism” (p. 32).  The therapist who conducted the second evaluation explained that “Jake had likely been diagnosed with Asperger’s (a mild form of autism characterized by relatively high functioning) instead of full-blown autism because his IQ was so high -- a shocking, off-the-charts 189 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children” (p. 32).

Chapter after chapter, the story of this amazing boy, and this incredibly resilient family, held me enthralled. In many ways, the Barnetts are an “ordinary” family -- while Kristine ran the home daycare, Michael worked at Target, then later at Circuit City, until his store was closed early in the recession. Kristine’s anecdotes about toddler Jake include Matchbox cars and crayons. They’re hard-working, generous people, who love their kids and want to do what’s best for them, and try to help others who are facing difficulties too.

In short, the Barnetts are a lot like most other American middle-class families. But, they have a son who is profoundly gifted. Kristine writes, “According to Miraca Gross in her book Exceptionally Gifted Children, there is less than one profoundly gifted person per one million” (p. 230). This boy essentially stopped interacting and communicating with other people when he was a toddler, and his parents were told by experts that Jake might never speak again. We know from the back of the book that Kristine decided to follow the “spark” she saw in Jake, to help him pursue his passionate interests, and this helped him eventually overcome the symptoms of autism, so he could come back into “the regular world,” yet still be himself. Jake’s story is worth reading on its own, but Kristine’s story, and that of the whole family, just adds to the richness of the book. The back cover doesn’t mention that Kristine and Michael’s second baby had a rare and potentially fatal condition; that Kristine herself was later diagnosed with another serious health problem; that in addition to the regular daycare, the Barnetts created a charitable program for autistic children, run out of their home. Kristine writes:

So every morning, I’d open the day care as usual and work a full nine-hour day there. But twice a week, after the day care children went home, I’d vacuum the room and set up a mock kindergarten for autistics kids. I called the program Little Light.  …  [I]nstead of hammering away at all the tasks these kids couldn’t do, I thought we’d start with what they wanted to do (p. 68).

I can tell you that The Spark is inspiring, a testament to the power of love and family, and also the value of going with your gut, especially with regard to what’s best for your kids. But I’d rather say that Jake and his family, and the journey they’ve taken so far, is just fascinating. I feel like I know them, yet I also believe that Kristine is a superwoman. If you have kids, or want to have kids, you should read this book. If you know someone who is autistic, have an interest in autism, or enjoy any kind of “medical memoir,” you should read this book. If you’re an educator of any kind, you should read this book. If you don’t fall into any of those other categories, but you just like any story about people facing obstacles and working to overcome them, then for heaven’s sake, JUST READ THIS BOOK.

I am grateful to LibraryThing and Random House for the chance to read and review this advance edition, and for the privilege of meeting Jacob and his family. To author and supermom Kristine Barnett, who wrote that this book is “the chance to share Jake and his gifts with the world” (p. 243), thank you, thank you, thank you!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Want to read: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

I listened to a Guardian Books podcast today that included an interview with writer Andrew Solomon about his latest book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.  I didn't realize until today that it had won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award for general non-fiction.  One of his earlier books, The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression, is a favorite that I've recommended to others.

Far from the Tree explores families where there is a profound difference between parents and child: deaf child of hearing parents, gay child of straight parents, child with schizophrenia, child becomes a criminal, and even child prodigy who possesses an incredible talent.  It took him over 10 years to research and write it.  This page on the Guardian website has a short article, and also a video of Solomon discussing the book.

Once in a while, I learn about a book that I want to buy new, and even in hardcover, because it's important to me to support that author's work and career -- a financial affirmation, if you will.  Even though it's over 900 pages, I'm pretty sure I'll be buying my own copy of Far from the Tree, and soon.  And it might take me years, but I will read it!