Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June 26th, 2016

The Atonement

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by Beverly Lewis (Thorndike 2016; ISBN 9871410487605)

The Atonement is the story of Lucy Flaud, a young Amish woman who has flouted the conventions of her strict community by having an affair with an Outsider. The story is set in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, three years after Lucy lost the baby that resulted from this affair; the father declined to marry her when he realized that he would be expected to become “Plain” (Amish). Lucy’s grief over her lost love and the death of the fetus is unabated. Her guilt has also estranged her from her beloved father, Christian Flaud, who is likewise grieving the loss of his relationship with her. Christian begins attending a grief support group at a nearby (non-Amish) church, and he eventually persuades Lucy to attend as well. But Christian inexplicably befriends a young “English” man he meets there, exposing Lucy to the charms of yet another potential suitor who is not Amish. Lucy gives herself over to charitable work to fill her time, believing that she can never marry. When her longtime friend Tobe expresses his desire to court her, she rejects him, believing herself to be forever ineligible to marry a virtuous Amish man because of her past transgression.

Beverly Lewis grew up in Amish country, daughter of an Amish mother, so I think it is safe to say that her depiction of Amish home life, way of speaking, and beliefs is probably pretty accurate. I enjoyed the story (although the characters seemed too goody-goody to be real), but this glimpse into the religion and culture of the Amish was for me the best part of the book.

Two other novels by Lewis set in Amish country are The Shunning and The Brethren.

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Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

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