Sunday, March 23, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Reason I Jump

The Reason I Jump was written by Naoki Higashida, a thirteen-year-old Japanese boy with autism.  Though unable to verbalize his thoughts in normal speech, his mother created something called the "alphabet grid" that allows him to communicate.  He has both a keyboard version for typing on the computer and a cardboard version he carries around with him.  The alphabet grid contains the English letters in the middle, with numerous common Japanese symbols around the edges, and by pointing at the appropriate symbol he can hold conversations with others and make his thoughts and wishes known.

It's a little hard to classify this book.  It's part-memoir, although as a young teen Naoki hasn't had much life experience to relate.  It also contains some short stories that Naoki has written to illustrate what life is like for those with autism.  But mostly, it's a series of questions followed by a paragraph or two explaining the questions he most often encounters about his condition.

For instance, in answering why he's not able to hold a conversation or even answer simple questions, he explains that he is able to form words.  It's just that if somebody asks him a question verbally, he has to process the question, formulate an answer, and say the answer out loud, performing all those steps consciously where most people do it automatically.  By the time he manages to get a response out, the conversation has moved on or ended completely!  To the other person, he appears non-responsive, even though in his own mind he understood the question perfectly.  Basically, even his native language is like a foreign tongue to Naoki.

Similarly, he addresses questions regarding his sudden and jerky movements, his repetitious behaviors, his sense of time, and many other topics.  It's all quite reasonable once you read his explanation for them.  Many of his activities that seem odd to others really act as a relief valve for him.

I find his answer regarding the reason he melts down or throws tantrums to be revealing.  He writes that internally, he is as mature as any other thirteen-year-old.  But because others treat him as a little child all the time, and because his own brain and body so rarely cooperate with his intentions, his life is a never-ending frustration.  It is his belief that anybody would react the way he does if subjected to the same level of stress he is.  (I am paraphrasing his words here, but I think this is an accurate characterization.)

The book is easy to read and immensely interesting.  Most readers should be able to finish it off in an hour or two.  My wife tells me that The Reason I Jump  is increasingly found on high-school required reading lists, which seems like a sensible addition.  Considering the amount of insight Naoki provides about autism, a condition that many consider inscrutable, and the amount of sympathy he generates for the autistic, I would say nearly everybody should read this book.  I might add, by reading about Naoki's very non-standard brain, even non-autistic readers will likely learn more about how their own minds work.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What I'm Reading: Grind Joint

Grind Joint is another Writers of Chantilly book, this one by long-time member Dana King.  It's a hard-boiled mystery about a good cop, "Doc" Dougherty, in Penns River, a once-prosperous but now dumpy industrial town.  The title refers to the new casino in town--a grind joint being a downscale casino catering to the most desperate clientele.  No sooner does the place open its doors than a dead body shows up on its doorstep.  Seems the casino has attracted the attention of some Russian gangsters, who want to move in and displace the Italian mob family that's long used Penns River as a convenient, low-key base for their real business down in Pittsburgh.  The Russian gangsters figure the grind joint will being some real action to Penns River, and have no desire in keeping things low-key in pushing out the mafiosa.  It's up to Doc to solve the murder and stop the coming gang war, if he can.

Now in my life I've read perhaps eight or ten hard-boiled mysteries, and half of those were during a summer in high school when I got into the Spenser series, but even I can see that there's nothing particularly original in the plot or characters here.  But that's hardly the point.  I think a mystery fan would find this lean and perfectly-paced, with proper genuflection to all the stations of the genre cross.

What interested me, however, was another book, contained in the same pages but hidden under the genre conventions: an anthropological study of a west Pennsylvania mill town in decline. I hope that doesn't make it sound boring, because I mean the opposite. With just a few lines of naturalistic dialogue, with a passing comment about traffic patterns, an offhand line about a streetscape, a short sketch of the relationship between a politician and a mobster, King deftly builds up a thick description of Penns River, a stand-in for any number of actual towns far enough from Pittsburgh not to be suburbs, but close enough to still be in its orbit.

So there you have my recommendation--Grind Joint is suitable both for the reader who might enjoy its considerable virtues as hard-boiled detective novel, but even more so for a student of American urbanism who wants a nuanced document of a decaying industrial town, fictional in this case but different only in the particulars from hundreds of other actual towns.