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Archive for January 20th, 2010

Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s (2009)
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages

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This book should be called Tim Page’s Pretty Great Life.

There’s an assumption with memoirs or biographies, especially ones that refer to a difficult condition in the subtitle, that there will be a significant dosage of mess-ups, misery and misfortune. It was therefore in an odd way depressing to finish reading this autobiography and realize that the author has been quite fortunate, and carved out a decent life for himself.

Page was passionate about classical and opera music at an early age.

Page grew up in a family which was supportive financially, emotionally, and socially.  He was immersed in excellent music, literature, and other rich cultural products at an early age, and was already successful enough as a child to be covered by Time magazine (though he ended up being edited out of the published feature).  As a young man he encountered mentors that aided in his development, and he quickly found a niche in which he could make a living (and eventually earn a Pulitzer prize for his writing on classical music).  Not only has not everyone been so fortunate, but I think it can be easily said that Page’s life has been made much easier by privileges not extended to the majority of humanity.

Of course there are some darker moments here too.  Use and abuse of drugs in his teen years. Appearing to be a genius to most people, yet being so disinterested in High School that he flunked many courses and eventually dropped out. A passenger in the crash of an overloaded pickup truck of teenagers on a weekend binge that resulted in several deaths. And the endless social awkwardness and difficulty in connecting with other people that comes as a part of Asperger’s syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in his forties.

If the above sounds like a slam, this is actually one of the best books that I’ve read in quite a while, and I have a hard time imagining that there will be many other books published that can compete with this one in evoking the essential spirit of growing up in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though I’m much younger than the author, I think he captured something essential about trying to survive and find yourself in a world both so permissive and so difficult and hostile.  I like how he appreciated both classical and rock music in a similar way, on its own merits.

Some people might protest that there’s not enough personal material here, such as information on interactions with his siblings, or the women in his life, or his children, but somehow I don’t think that being exhaustive is a necessary element for an autobiography.  Bob Dylan’s autobiography similarly left unmentioned much of his personal life, but sometimes those things just aren’t what the author wants to talk about. This book doesn’t scale incredible artistic highs, or take a steely look at things from every angle, but if you take it for what it is–in the same way it’s best to take people–it’s a great and inspiring read.

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Civil War Stories
by Ambrose Bierce
Dover Thrift Editions
128 pages

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Ambrose Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War, and enlisted in fighting for the Federal forces, with whom he participated in many bloody battles.  These experiences likely went a large way to forming the cynical and jaded views he carried through the rest of his life, and he came to be known by the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.

The 16 stories in this collection are mostly of the sort that occupy a middle ground between truth and fiction – they’re based on the author’s first-hand experience, but shaped and fleshed-out to fit the needs and duties of art.

Thoughts on some of the stories: “What I saw at Shiloh” begins the collection off with a very vivid description of troops maneuvering and engaging the enemy on the battlefield.  “Four Days in Dixie” follows the story of some northern soldiers who sneak over to the other side to spy, and then have trouble making their way back.  “A Horseman in the Sky” not only contains the vivid imagery of the title, but introduces a theme that gets repeated in many of the other stories, where a soldier finds himself fighting and killing his closest relatives.  The famous “An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge” is here too, which touches on the slightly fantastic, a world that Bierce would explore in some of his stories collected elsewhere. The last story, “The Mocking-bird”, ends things off with some very poetic imagery of dreams and nature.

Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, disappeared in Mexico in 1914

Bierce is an excellent prose writer, bringing the reader into the story by relating things in a matter-of-fact tone. The main weakness of this collection is that some of the plots and events do repeat themselves from story to story.  Also, occasionally I felt hindered by my lack of knowledge of both Civil War history and military terminology.  On the whole, I think I prefer Bierce’s supernatural stories.

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