Book Review|Switched On by John Elder Robison

 

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Book Review of Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening by John Elder Robison

In a quest for emotional intelligence, John Elder Robison agreed to allow neuroscientists to experiment on his brain. In this memoir that reminds one of Flowers for Algernon, Robison tells us about his experience with TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and the resulting effects on his emotions and life.

Imagine your world being turned upside down by a sudden awareness that things are not at all the way you thought they were. Scales drop from your eyes. You connect with people in a way you never have before. Things are different, sharper. But there is a caveat. You  see that sometimes ‘friends’ are most definitely not friends at all. Childhood memories are now viewed with disturbing clarity. The gift you so sought after, to become more perceptive, is now yours but the beauty so desired and expected isn’t the only thing this new found ability to see emotion reveals.

I was moved by Switched On in a way no other memoir has touched me. This is truly a unique experience that Robison has shared.

After the reception his book, Look Me In the Eye, John Elder Robison was approached to participate in a research study. Scientists wanted to measure the plasticity of the brain, in other words, how the brain can adapt, change, and ‘rewire’ itself. They also sought results about cognitive therapies and how that might affect the brain. The idea was to see if TMS could be used to effect the difficulties autistic people have reading the emotions and nonverbal communication of others.

People on the autism spectrum are not unemotional or uncaring. They do have difficulty reading people, understanding, and responding in the expected way to situations. This is something that people are expected to come by naturally, but this skill seems particularly elusive to people on the spectrum.

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change, chronicles the unexpected and far reaching results of this research study. Robison underwent moments of amazing emotional awakening and others of devastation as a result of the sudden onslaught of awareness.

This memoir leaves us with more questions than answers about the future of TMS for therapeutic uses. Delving into this area of research raises a multitude of ethical questions.

“The thing is, not all differences lead to disability. Some lead to exceptionality. And we don’t necessarily know enough to tell one from the other. Yet we are on the verge of acting on that incomplete knowledge right now in the area of autism.”

Switched On left me feeling conflicted. It offers hope for future understanding and therapies, but is, in part, a cautionary tale. We would do well to take heed. At the same time, there were tremendous gains for Robison. This book has given me a deeper understanding of why someone might be willing to try these kinds of treatments.

I like Robison’s writing style. I find his books to be easy to read and entertaining, while at the same time providing information. In this particular book he does tend to stray into areas that are a bit technical for me, but his down-to-earth style kept me engaged with the story throughout. This book was a fascinating read and I finished it quickly.

I recommend this book for anyone curious about TMS, autism, or for anyone interested in a good memoir.

I also suggest Robison’s first book, Look Me in The Eye, or another of his books, Be Different, both of which I found to be very encouraging and informative. This recent book is a bit different than the two I have previously read since it deals with medical research, but Robison’s engaging story telling style remains. In Switched On Robison has given readers the opportunity to gain further insights into his autistic journey.

Listen as John Elder Robison talks about his experience on NPR “Here and Now.”

Read my review of John Elder Robinson’s memoir Look Me in the Eye here.

Book Review| Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

8664353Book Review of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

What is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption about?

Unbroken: A World War II Story is Louis Zamperini’s story, written by Laura Hillenbrand. Most of the narrative takes place during WWII, complemented by the story of Louis’ somewhat troubled youth and subsequent athletic accomplishments as an Olympic runner and completed by finding peace in 1949 after hearing Billy Graham share the gospel message.

Reactions and Thoughts

If you only read one book this year, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand may be one to consider. I am not a huge war story fan, but this tale was so incredible and the book well written that I was highly engaged the entire time. It is entertaining and inspirational, while at the same time providing a look back to history through a first hand account.

There were some places in the latter portion of the book when I had to put it aside.  It was too disturbing, but for the most part the story was detailed enough to keep me turning pages without being overwhelming. It brought the experiences of our service men to life and sparked an interest that had me researching for more of the history. It made me question how man can participate in acts such as those described in Unbroken.

This example of the tenacious quality of the human spirit amazed me. The redemption of Louis Zamperini was moving. Even after overcoming impossible circumstances, he found there was still a need for God’s grace. Following Louis to the point where he was able to forgive those who committed such crimes against him was inspiring. He found a completed freedom in his submission to God, enabling Louis to experience a healed soul.

I was totally engrossed in this story. I would recommend this book for anyone, but would preview before handing to my teen. There is another version directed toward YA I have yet to read, but plan to.

Remembering the Unbroken Spirit of Louis Zamperini

Issues of Concern

War, torture, death, deprivation, alcoholism, PTSD, abuse, domestic violence, Louie’s behavioral struggles in his youth

Study Guides and Reading Guides for Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Reading Guide from the Author’s Website

Reading and Discussion Guide From Lit Lovers

For Parents and Educators Using the Young Adult Adaptation of Unbroken

Quotes from Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

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“When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him.”

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”

“His conviction that everything happened for a reason, and would come to good, gave him a laughing equanimity even in hard times.”

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

“Louie dug out the Bible that had been issued to him by the air corps and mailed home to his mother when he was believed dead. He walked to Barnsdall Park, where he and Cynthia had gone in better days, and where Cynthia had gone, alone, when he’d been on his benders. He found a spot under a tree, sat down, and began reading. Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.”

“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors.”

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Book Review|The Boys Who Challenged Hitler

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German forces occupied Denmark in 1940 with no government opposition due to lack of military force. A patriotic group of school boys, mostly 9th graders, decided to take things into their own hands. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is their story, compiled from personal interviews and correspondence.

It took some time for the resistance in Denmark to become organized. In the meantime, the RAF Club and later The Church Hill Club, as the boys called themselves, took matters into their own hands. Recounting numerous acts of sabotage and resistance taken to undermine the Germans, Knud Peterson tells of the club’s function and operation. These activities against the Gestapo became widely known and helped inspire other Danes to join together to resist the Nazis.

The narration of events was absorbing. The risks and actions that the boys undertook demonstrate that even small subversion can make a large impact. These young men did what they felt they needed to do for their country.

I stumbled across this book on a list of recommended reading for young people but it is suitable for adult readers as well. This is a look at the sacrifice of these young men who lived through harsh times and risked their freedom to fight against the Nazi regime.

For those interested in WWII history, this book would be a great addition to any library of World War II accounts. There are extensive resources compiled in the back of this book. This high interest text could be used as part of a study of World War II.

There are many mature themes throughout the book. War, injury, acts of sabotage, illegal acts, imprisonment, deprivation, deception

Recommended for older children and adults.

Teacher’s Guide on the Author’s Website for The Boys Who Challenged Hitler

Author Interview The Boys Who Challenged Hitler | An Interview With Phillip Hoose School Library Journal

Knud Peterson passed away shortly after working with author Phillip Hoose on this manuscript. First hand accounts of history are very important. If you are interested in preserving history, The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has a website of interest, with guidelines for the oral history project here.

 

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Book Review|The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan

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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less

by Terry Ryan

The memoir The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan is entertaining and inspirational. Terry’s mother, Evelyn Ryan, used ingenuity and wit to battle poverty and raise her ten children despite a difficult home situation. Gifted with a writing ability, she kept the family afloat financially by making a career of entering product contests popular at the time.

Often, I was moved as I listened to the story of this family and the struggles they experienced growing up in the 1950s and 60s with an alcoholic father and constant financial uncertainty .

Although she was faced with trying circumstances, Evelyn handled them all with a no nonsense attitude colored with humor. Terry obviously has a great deal of love and respect for her mother. I think this book is a beautiful tribute.

This was a story that kept me engrossed. I listened to the audiobook and finished it in one sitting.

Recommended.

Issues of concern:

Father’s alcoholism, poverty, destruction of property, incident where father pushes mother and causes injury, lack of support

I listened to the audio version of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less read by Terry Ryan, the author. This is an abridged version. The recording and the reading were well done and easy to listen to.

Book Discussion Questions for The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio from Mount Prospect Public Library

This memoir has been made into a movie, which I have viewed. The movie stays true to the version of the book I listened to with minor changes and deletions. I believe the heart of the story is conveyed quite well on the screen.

 

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Book Review| Look Me In The Eye

Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s

By John Elder Robison

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“So is there a cure?’ I asked.
“It’s not a disease,” he explained. “It doesn’t need curing. It’s just how you are”

 

This memoir pulled me in right away. In Look Me In The Eye: My Life With Asperger’s, John Elder Robison recounts his childhood with a straight forward candidness and a story telling style that makes for easy reading or listening. The emotions his story evokes run the gamut from humorous to heartbreaking and everything in between. Many of the events he recounts are of a mature nature.

There is sense of hope as well as moments of dark humor. I liked the balance in this memoir. As a mother, I found myself both horrified and chuckling at some of his childhood dealings with his little brother. The recounting of his various careers is amazing, considering he was a dropout who was never expected to amount to much.

John Elder Robison’s message of finding a way and doing your best shines though. I found myself rooting for him as he told of his struggles.

I would recommend this book for any adult or young adult who is interested in learning more about Asperger’s, enjoys memoir, or who likes a good story about overcoming. Parents who are concerned with the subject matter should preview the book. This is a good book for discussion and inspiration.

Issues of Concern (I listened to the audiobook read by John Elder Robison. This was an abridged version.)

Mature topics presented in a matter of fact manner in the natural flow of the memoir. Parent’s mental illness, child abuse, father’s alcoholism, sexual abuse by a doctor against his mother, language, mentions of drug use, arrest when working with a band, mention of mother’s bisexualism, mention of brother’s same sex partner, there may be additional issues in the unabridged version

Lit Lovers Book Discussion Questions for Look Me in the Eye 

Teacher’s Guide for Look Me In The Eye http://johnrobison.com/downloads/LMITE-teachers-guide.pdf    

Student Study Guide for Look Me In The Eye http://www.johnrobison.com/downloads/LMINE_study_questions.pdf

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Book Review|Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

ChineseCinderellaChinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter

by Adeline Yen Mah

This story begins in 1941 when Adeline is four years old and tells of growing up as an unwanted fifth child of a wealthy family.  Adeline’ s mother died giving birth to her. Because of this, Adeline was considered ‘bad luck’. Adeline’s father remarried and two more children were added to the family. This is not the tale of a happy childhood, but is a story of perseverance and hope.

Chinese Cinderella is an easy to read memoir of Adeline’s childhood until age fourteen. The message is a positive one of working hard and believing in yourself even if no one else does. This book encourages the reader to understand and remember that everyone has value and potential.

The historical tidbits throughout are interesting without being overwhelming. The depictions of the family dynamics and culture felt genuine. I enjoyed this read.

The topics in this book can be a springboard for discussion of many issues.

There are instances of cruelty and neglect, both physical and emotional.

SPOILER

In one part of the book, Adeline is bitten by her father’s dog.

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