Look Me In The Eye – by John Elder Robison (2007 hardcover, 2008 paperback)

Look Me in the Eye My Life with Asperger's

As a child, John Elder was aware that he wasn’t like other kids. For some reason, he had a terrible time conversing, making friends, and acting in ways that most people considered “normal”. Even looking his teachers in the eye when they were talking to him was nearly impossible. To further complicate things, his father was an alcoholic and his mother mentally ill, which made home life very tense. It wasn’t until he was 40 years old that a friend suggested that he might have Asperger’s. Once diagnosed, things finally made sense.

Even before he found out why he was different, John Elder worked hard in life and eventually became very successful. He made customized guitars with special effects for the band KISS, helped develop electronic games for Milton Bradley, opened his own shop to restore/repair high-end European cars, became a national speaker and advocate for persons with Asperger’s, and became a best-selling author.

In some ways I found this book similar to “The Glass Castle” – the poverty, the dysfunctional family, trying to cover the shame of their childhoods, and then their success despite all odds. Both books were disheartening at the beginning, but slowly morphed into stories of triumph. It just goes to show that no matter what disadvantages we may start off with, it’s really up to us to make our lives a success or a failure.

Some excerpts that I found thought-provoking:

from chapter 1:
Machines were never mean to me. They challenged me when I tried to figure them out. They never tricked me, and they never hurt my feelings. I was in charge of the machines. I liked that. I felt safe around them…

from chapter 17:
When people were drinking and doing coke around me, I often felt confused. I didn’t like feeling out of control, and I had seen people do outrageous things while they were drunk and have no memory of it the next day. The mere thought that I might do things like that was enough to make me cringe. So I didn’t know what to do. “Relax, Ampie! Here, have a line! Here, have a drink!” An observer would have said temptation was all around me, but to me it wasn’t tempting at all. I did a few lines and I drank a few drinks – just enough to feel like I was being polite. I never felt the desire to pack in all the beer I could drink or all the coke I could snort. I just did not like how it made me feel. The few times I was drunk or on drugs, I would close my eyes and the world would spin, and I would say to myself, When is this going to end? Why did I do this? It didn’t take me very long to outgrow it, if outgrow is the right word. I stopped doing drugs and liquor, and I didn’t resume.

from chapter 18:
Heroin was scary. I’d read how you could become addicted with a few pricks of the needle, and I saw how the addicts lived. In dumpsters, and passed out in doorways. No way am I going to do that, I thought. That was even worse than my father’s drinking. I watched it all with the same detachment I had learned to feel when I was excluded from playing with kid packs when I was five. No one made fun of me, but I still could not integrate myself into the groups around me. I wanted to make friends, but I didn’t want to engage in the activities I saw them doing. So I just watched. And I worked. And I stayed, convinced that it was better to be destitute in Amherst than in New York City.

from the postscript to the paperback edition:
Today when I speak to kids, I see myself in their struggles, and I want so much for them to have a better life than me. I resolved to clean up my language because that would help me reach more young people. To that end, I’ve made a few changes in this edition. I’ve cleaned up the language in some thirty passages to make the book appropriate for tweens and teenagers. All the pranks and tricks and wild times are still there, including passages that may be rough for a kid to read. But real life is like that, and some unfortunate kids experience things worse than I describe in my book every day. This book depicts my life as I live it. If you are a purist and prefer to read Look Me In The Eye in its original profane glory, the hardcover remains untouched.

Blasphemy – by Asia Bibi and Anne-Isabelle Tollett (2013)

Blasphemy

It wasn’t too far in our country’s past that we had separate drinking fountains for black people and white people. It was a disgraceful part of United States history that has been left behind. The same cannot be said for Pakistan, where Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for using the same drinking cup as the Muslim women in her community in 2009.

Asia and her husband Ashiq were the only Christians in their village, the rest of the residents being Muslim. However, they were respectful of the dominant religion, and had always lived peaceably with their neighbors. Then came the day that Asia was picking falsa berries with a group of women, and one woman objected to her having used the common water cup for a drink. All hell broke loose at that point, and Asia soon found herself in prison on trumped-up charges of blasphemy against Muhammad. Her captors said that if she gave up her allegiance to Jesus and converted to Islam, her life would be spared. She refused to renounce Jesus Christ.

In 2010 Asia was sentenced to be hanged for her crime, despite protesting her innocence. Her family had to go into hiding, for when one person is charged with blasphemy, the entire family is considered guilty. People all over the world protested her arrest, diplomats tried to negotiate her release, and the Pope begged the Pakistani government to release her. It has been eight years, and Asia still sits on death row, her life in limbo. Several people who have attempted to help her have been assassinated.

An international reporter affiliated with France 24, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, was moved to write a book about Asia’s imprisonment. It was a difficult task, as Asia could not read or write, and only the lawyer and husband were allowed to visit. So the lawyer would read questions to Asia, she would verbally answer, then the lawyer would convey them to Anne-Isabelle, who wrote them down. The book was finished and published in 2011, then re-published in 2012 and 2013.

It is simply appalling to think that in this day and age, people can be executed simply for the beliefs of their heart. Asia was not hurting anyone, nor was her family. Yet she will, in all likelihood, die of malnutrition or illness in prison. Would most Americans be willing to hold to their religious beliefs if faced with the hangman’s noose? I think not.

The Man Who Couldn’t Eat – by Jon Steiner (2011)

The Man Who Couldn't Eat

After reading this book, I’ll never complain again about having to fast before having a blood draw. Even being unable to eat for several days because of the flu pales in comparison to the nightmare described in this book. Jon Reiner is a guy who loves food, to the point of gluttony. But nasty digestive flare-ups lead to a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease, surgery to repair the damage, and an altered diet.

The book begins at a point in Jon’s life when he’s been feeling exceptionally well, so he has reverted back to eating whatever he wants. Then the worst possible thing happens: while his wife is at work and the kids are in school, his intestines rupture. Jon comes close to dying on his living room floor. He spends weeks hospitalized with peritonitis, and the doctors not allowing him to eat or drink anything. He has only intravenous (IV) nutrition.  Jon comes to hate the medical term NPO (no products orally).

As time drags on with very little healing, the doctors decide to let him go home, but he must continue to survive solely on IV feedings for three months to allow the digestive track to rest and heal. Watching his family eat while he is allowed not one sip of water or bite of food is agony. Jon’s descriptions of food fantasies and past eating experiences are vivid, to the point of almost being able to taste them as you read.

The story is truly stranger than fiction. It is hard to imagine that anyone could survive the abdominal infection and months of not eating. But the human body is amazingly created with the ability to heal up from nearly impossible odds. The next time you feel deprived because your meal is late or the doctor wants you to fast for a day before some procedure, think about Jon Reiner and thank God you’re not going through the same thing.

Castles In The Air – by Judy Corbett (2004)

Castles In The Air

It was love at first sight when Peter and Judy Corbett laid eyes on Gwydir Castle in Wales. The castle was about 500 years old, with the oldest parts dating back to 1555 AD. It would be a dream come true to live in such a place, they thought. So they bought it, not realizing just how much time and money it would require to restore.

Their first week in the castle was eye-opening, to say the least. Check out these blurbs from chapter 4: Trial By Pestilence And Flood.

“We struggled with the fire. It was our only source of heat in the house. A year’s worth of combustibles sat piled up in the grate. Peter poked around and extracted two forlorn bits of charred seventeenth-century panelling…

“The Primus stove hissed contentedly away on the flagstones, producing its own unique aroma of onions, gas and seashells. Everyone but Sven had boycotted the kitchen after finding rat droppings in the cupboards and the bloated body of a dead rat in the water tank which supplied the kitchen…

“I awoke from a night spent dealing with the effects of acute seafood poisoning without the provision of an upstairs flushable loo. It was a degrading business make worse by the knowledge that there was no hot water either. All night I writhed on my mattress of bubble wrap, listening to the metallic plink of rainwater hitting a rusted Fray Bentos tin…

“…the river had burst its banks in the night and the garden was completely flooded and we were cut off from the town and all our garden walls had been washed away and the cellars were full of water and the flood was still rising and some of our furniture was still outside in the courtyard and our car was floating around in the car park…

“Though we’d lived in the house for just under a week, I still kept losing my bearings and constantly had to remind myself where the kitchen was in relation to our bedroom and how the maze of other rooms interrelated…”

Despite their financial limitations, the Corbetts managed to restore Gwydir Castle to near-original condition. They found inventive ways to raise money for the repairs they needed to make, and in the end their castle was truly home.

Building A Home With My Husband – by Rachel Simon (2009)

Building A Home With My Husband

When you start a home improvement project, it is almost guaranteed to become more difficult than first anticipated. This was definitely the case for Hal and Rachel, who decided to totally remodel their century-old row house in Wilmington, Delaware. Hal, being the architect, drew the plans to convert the house from a drafty, inefficient house to one that was modern, well-insulated, and eco-friendly. The couple had to rent another house to live in during the renovation. One thing after another went wrong, and it seemed that the house would never be finished.

But this isn’t just a book about a construction project; it’s a heartfelt story about relationships. Rachel’s complex relationship with her husband Hal. Rachel’s relationship with her mother, who walked away from the family when she was a child. Rachel’s relationship with her sister Beth, who is mentally challenged. Rachel’s relationships with one of the neighbors she becomes close to in their temporary house. The author goes back and forth from the house to the relationships, weaving them together.

I enjoyed this biography so much that I sighed when it came to an end, and they were back in their original house, now much improved. I wanted the story to go on and on, to hear more about Rachel and her mother rebuilding their relationship, about good times with sister Beth, and so on. Fortunately for me, Rachel has written another book, entitled “Riding The Bus With My Sister”, which will be my next book!

Pastrix – by Nadia Bolz-Weber (2013)

Pastrix

Nadia Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran pastor who ministers primarily to people with alternative sexual orientations, and those given to addictions of one kind or another. She grew up in a loving Christian family, and was baptized at age 12 in a Church Of Christ. Sadly, she only understood being a Christian as a list of rules of things you couldn’t do if you expected to get into heaven. Nadia grew to hate the established church. (Ironically, she admits that her home church was one of the few places where people treated her kindly in her teen years when she was diagnosed with Graves Disease, while she was teased and bullied at school and other places.)

By the time she was a legal adult, she was heavily into alcohol and moved into a drug house. Fortunately, she had the good sense to move out shortly before it was raided. Nadia became a stand-up comedian, and continued drinking. She eventually found herself in an AA meeting in a church basement, and that was the beginner of her journey back to sobriety, Jesus and the church. Nadia’s passion became helping other people find Jesus in a setting where they would feel accepted.

There were parts of this book that I loved, like the way she developed a friendship with another Christian who had vastly different doctrinal beliefs from her own. I loved her passion for helping people who felt like outsiders. I also really felt for Nadia when she was conned by someone she poured all her energy into for months, and thought she was helping.

Some parts of the book showed brilliant insights, while other parts revealed a disdain of Christians who looked “normal”. She seemed to carry a large chip on her shoulder against anyone that didn’t share her personal views on certain issues. Conservative Christians are criticized for not being accepting enough of every lifestyle, but at times the author seemed to look down on those who had read the Bible and come to different conclusions than she had.

But perhaps the most difficult part of reading this book was the profanity strewn throughout it. It really didn’t seem like she needed to keep using the “f” word. No one’s perfect, and nasty things may slip out of the mouth when someone’s angry or stressed, but does it really need to be part of her written testimony about walking with Jesus?

All in all, I’m glad I read Nadia’s story. It is a reminder that Christians come in many varieties, and have different styles of worshiping God. As far apart as we may seem to be, we are bound together by the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Some day in heaven, we will understand those puzzling parts of the Bible, and be able to put aside the things that divide us here in this life. Until then, it’s up to each of us to love one another and follow Jesus as best we can.

Hyper – by Timothy Denevi (2014)

hyper-a-personal-history-of-adhd

Remember that kid in your class at school that just couldn’t sit still, keep his/her hands to themselves, pay attention, or stop getting into trouble with someone on the playground? It was the kid that drove every teacher crazy and exhausted the parents. But have you thought about how it felt to be that kid?

Tim Denevi struggled with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) from the time he was a small boy. As I read his story, I felt sadness that he had such a frustrating and troubled childhood. Tim describes the agony of not being able to interact well with other kids, having fits of anger, going through years of counseling, and trying medication with mixed results. As he got older he switched schools several times, and tried to act like a “normal” kid, but his ADHD always showed itself after a while.

Mixed in with Tim’s story is the history of ADHD, and how doctors have treated it over the years. Over the past hundred years, they have tried psychotherapy, behavior modification, and various medical treatments. By the end of the book, I had concluded that there seems to be no one approach that works for everyone with ADHD. But what was obvious was that Tim was helped majorly by those teachers and individuals who showed love, caring, and patience with him.

It must be very difficult to live your life being observed and analyzed by a host of people who are trying to “fix” you. I am glad that Tim was able to gradually find ways to keep better concentration and control of himself, and have a normal adult life. My admiration and respect goes out to him, and all those others who have overcome the obstacles that ADHD throws at them.